Blessed by sapphires (a dance with destiny book 2)

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Blessed by Sapphires

“One cannot determine the outcome of any encounter. Every mêlée, no matter how small, has the potential to stir up a hornet’s nest. Don’t take up arms over every little thing. Make your thrusts count, land the blows that matter. Make a difference in this world without making it worse in another way. Balance—it must be accomplished before harmony can be achieved. Carve these words on your hearts. Choose your battles wisely, Brothers and Sisters.”

JK Ensley

 

Blessed

by

Sapphires

 

Book Two of

A Dance with Destiny

 

JK Ensley

I am Jenevier Olesia Embarr. Healer by rights, killer by choice.

This is neither the beginning of my story, nor the end.

Copyright© 2013 by Jennifer Ensley

Blessed by Sapphires is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance, similarity, or identification to actual persons, living or dead, events, products or locales is entirely coincidental and unintentional.

Artwork by Claudia McKinney.http://www.phatpuppyart.comand stock purchased fromhttp://shutterstock.com

Cover Design by Ashley Dungan, The Bookish Brunette.http://www.bookish-brunette.com

Editing by Toni Rakestraw.http://www.rakestrawbookdesign.com

Formatting by Jennifer Ensley.http://www.JKEnsley.com

Proofing by Mel Carey and Linda Ingle.

All rights are reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form, including but not limited to, characters, text, book design, cover work and artwork all owned solely by Jennifer K. Ensley. Any unauthorized duplication and/or distribution of this work, characters, places, and story in whole or in part may result in civil liability and criminal prosecution.

 

Download entire serieshere.

For my son, Christian, whom after years of telling me how weird I am, finally convinced me. I caved in and embraced it. Stay true to yourself, Son. Forge your own path. I’ll be waiting for your return. Your journey may be a long one, but imagine all the amazing stories you’ll have to tell.Dum vivimus vivamus…While we live, let us live.

And to my beloved parents… I have not the words. Tears will have to suffice in expressing how much you mean to me. Never has any daughter known such love and support. I humbly kneel at your feet, always.

Gratitude!!!

All works by JK Ensley are available in the following formats.

Print at Amazon.com, Createspace.com, and wherever books are sold.

eBook available in all ereader formats.

Audio book available through Audible.com, Amazon.com, and iTunes.

 

Also by JK Ensley

 

A Dance with Destiny:

Cursed by Diamonds

 

Download entire serieshere.

“One doesn’t have to go in search of evil as per a quest or mission. The journey is a short one. For if a person simply removes their goodness, evil will find them easily enough. Darkness wasn’t created; it is the absence of light. A being cannot spread darkness… they need only remove the light.”

~ Jenevier

Chapter Prologue

 

 

 

“A discarded Princess will knock upon our door.”

“Oh, thank the goddess. Will she arrive before Beltane?”

“That, I cannot see, Larie. Yet, she is meant to be the treasure long awaited.” He closed his eyes and smiled. “When I look upon her, calmness and peace wash over my essence.”

“So sheisthe one.” Excitement lit up her face. “Will we finally be blessed with perfection?”

“She must be the one, the one chosen from the beginning, for I can see nothing but love and harmony covering the whole of Praetoria following her blessed arrival.”

“At last, after a thousand years, we’ll finally please the goddess and receive our just rewards.” She collapsed unto her knees, breathing a deep sigh of relief. “I’ve only ever dared to dream this would happen within my lifetime.”

“As have we all, child, as have we all.”

“Pray, tell me. What does the chosen one look like? What color is her skin? Her hair? Her eyes? I must needs know for whom to look.”

“Fret not, Larie. You’ll know her minus those trivial things. What your eyes see will be but a ruse. The treasure lies within, hidden from mortal view.”

She furrowed her brow, apprehension replacing some of her previous joy. “Then how will I know her? How can I be sure?”

“Don’t concern yourself with the hows and whys, my child. Have faith that what will be, will be.” He leaned forward and knowingly patted her arm. “Shewillcome to you, Larie. She’ll trust you almost immediately.”

“You have seen this?”

“Yes, I have. She will very nearly love you before the end.”

Happy tears burned her eyes. “I tremble at the thought.”

“Take heed, Larie, for you will very nearly love her as well.” His eyes narrowed as he imparted the warning he had envisioned. “She’s a beautiful trap, a delicious poison. She is a deadly enchantment, my child, one you cannot easily look away from.”

“What’re you saying, Oracle? Is she to be feared?”

“Perhaps. Yet, you won’t be able to. She will not harm you, Larie. She’ll love the night people. Fear will be the farthest thing from your mind. You’ll only want to hold her, comfort her. She’ll need you, Larie. You will be to her as a calm place amidst a battlefield.”

“Will you know when she nears?”

“I cannot tell. She is as water. I know not where she flows…sheknows not where she flows.”

 

*****

 

“Sire, what will you have us do?”

“Hold, that’s what I’ll have you do. Move not until I command it. She can cease the very beat of your heart. She can cause your lungs to forget their purpose. Move not against her. This maiden is for me alone.”

“Emperor, draw not swords with a witch. They don’t fight with honor.”

“She is no witch, Yui. She’s an Angel.”

“Sire, Angels don’t exist.” The young man narrowed his eyes and looked to his liege, skeptically. “Only the old ones of Jinn can wield powers like those you speak of. Andtheyare no longer of this world. Someone has given you ill counsel, Milord. Give me their name and I will deliver you their head.”

The Emperor cast the young Shinobi a knowing glance. “Could you so easily remove a woman’s head, Yui?”

He swallowed hard. “If she intentionally bore false tongue to the Emperor, it would be my duty to do so.”

“Your loyalty is admirable, good Yui.” The Emperor smiled. “You will go far. Alas, it’s not blades I wish to cross with this woman.” He looked to the clouds. “My desire in her regard is not for her blood. Well, not wholly. I have undecided intentions toward the maid.”

“You wish to bed her?” Yui shook his head, tossed a stone in the still waters, and stared blindly at the coming ripples. “Sire, one so powerful cannot be trusted in the throes of passion. If you let your guard down with her—”

“Steady your thoughts, young one.” A wry smile turned up one corner of the Emperor’s mouth. “When I take her to bed, it will be her deepest desire for me to do so. She will love me and give herself to me freely. My intentions are, ultimately, she willgiftme her great power in exchange for my heart.”

“And, when you have gained her love and won her heart, what then, Sire?”

“Then, my dear boy… I shall destroy her.”

Yui turned wide eyes to the Emperor. “Sire, hell hath no fury—”

He cut off the young man’s words. “Hell itself cannot stand before my blades once drawn.” He looked back to the clouds. “And this maiden does not boast the power of hell, no matter hertrinkets.”

 

*****

 

“Decimus, come before me.”

“Yes, Master Shabriri. What is your wish?”

“I’m sending you to aid an old friend of mine. He’s on layer seven, the realm of Praetoria. One in their group has been dispatched back to the Otherworld by those damn Guardians. We must maintain The Thirteen. Go now. And tell Jago I will demand payment of him when next we meet.”

The handsome demon bowed low. “Is that all, Milord?”

“No, that’s not all, you sniveling little brat,” Shabriri hissed. “I wish you to send me many bastards. Lay with a human woman every night, send each spawn back to Spadroon.”

“Yes, Master.”

“The more screams and tears the woman sheds at the conception, the more powerful the offspring will be. Take care not to kill her, you fool, or you’ll defeat my purpose.”

“Yes, Master.”

Book Two

Chapter 1

Jenevier

(ZHEN-ah-veer)

 

 

 

I was walking down yet another busy city street. Hundreds of unknown faces, thousands of unseeing eyes, and still I was alone.

I had nowhere to go, nowhere to be. And yet, I walked… always I walked.

During my time on the eighth layer, I’d witnessed many horrific things. Countless muggings, beatings, drug use, burglaries, murder, abuse of all kinds, rapes, gang wars… and still, I walked.

This street was no different from the thousands of others I’d roamed. It was lined with small shops, large buildings full of office workers, street vendors, and all the unknowing masses numbly dragging through their unknowing lives. The sounds here mirrored all the others; honking horns, police sirens, subway tremors, accented voices shouting about their available wares, and the ever present homeless, begging for coins from businessmen who pretended not to notice them… and from the tourists who noticed them too much.

And that’s exactly where I was—head down, trudging along Baker Street near the harbor in a congested town called Baltimore—when I heard the blissful chiming. My mind rocked with the painful remembrance of those tinkling little bells. I slowly turned toward the beckoning OPEN sign, almost daring to hope, yet bracing myself for the disappointing reflection I feared I would find looking back at me from the dusty old store window.

Sorrow shook me once again when I saw the same golden curls and the same deep blue eyes. No tinkling locks and no flaming orbs could be found. I glared at the accursed cheap wind chimes that had made my heart skip a beat and caused my blood to race through my veins. I willed those taunting chimes to burst, or break, or just crash to the filthy sidewalk. But nothing happened.

A large bin underneath those wretched wind-tossed devils taunting me held a name which bade me come closer.

It was only a wire container, pushed out near the street, piled full of old books and faded novels. The shopkeepers used such things to tempt would-be customers into perusing the merchandise within as well. A large handmade sign simply read ‘75% off, all sales FINAL.’

Halfway down the mound of tattered, torn, and previously unwanted paper treasures, one bore the name…Jenevier. My name.

I have traveled through many layers of this universe and have yet to meet another Jenevier. I know not if it’s the name that’s rare or if those bestowed with such a name were simply not troublesome enough to needmysort of intervention. Yet, I alone can easily disprove that theory. And that little thought made me giggle. I’m amazed, after what I’ve lived through I can still manage to laugh on occasion. It feels good.

I carefully pulled the book through one of the large square holes and cautiously opened the first page. Written there upon that cheap, yellowing paper were the familiar words of my very last thoughts. Words I had never even uttered aloud. The same words that’d run through my mind as I lay dying at the end of all things. I read on.

Bitter word for bitter word, painful moment for painful moment, they were all meticulously recorded upon those loosely held pages within that broken old binding. Here was my entire life, written down for all to see and then haplessly tossed into a discount bin outside an overpriced tourist shop.

The rain started, so I walked on, the book tucked neatly under my shivering arm.

 

*****

 

The weather on layer eight is nothing like my homeland of Ashgard. It is unpredictable at best. I’m always traveling to a fairer place, never resting, always searching. Baltimore is definitely no place to be in the tenth month of their calendar year. I’m headed south in search of the blessed sun and the warmth I know it will bring.

I don’t believe I’m invisible. I mean, I can see myself and I can see my reflection. But not one single being on this entire layer has ever acknowledged me in any way. Strangely, that’s become my favorite thing about layer eight—complete anonymity.

I go where I please, eat what I crave, and sleep where I want. No one seems to even notice. If I wish to yell, I yell. If I want to cry, I cry. If I feel like singing… I just open up my mouth and belt out the tune at the top of my lungs, no matter where I happen to be standing. And when the time comes that I decide I’d like to take a lazy summer nap in the very center of a beautifully manicured flower garden… well then, that’s exactly what I do.

I mean, my banishment was severe, yes, but not completely cruel. I could have all I needed, except companionship. I’ve used up all the friends and love this life had to offer me. I haplessly squandered all that was truly precious, all that was worth keeping, so it was taken from me. Or perhaps more appropriately,Iwas taken fromit.

 

*****

 

I made my way into the dank office of another dingy old motel and chose a random key from the hooks on the wall behind the desk. I’d never figured out how to retrieve one of those sliding cards used by all the newer, much nicer places to sleep. So I either stayed in a rundown old dump still using metal keys, or I slept under the stars when the weather permitted.

Once inside my humble home for the night, I hung up the new clothes I’d taken right off the store rack, uncontested. I peeled off the wet ones still mercilessly clinging to my trembling, ageless body, and turned on the shower. I sat down upon one of my favorite things this layer had to offer, an indoor toilet, and began to read my newly found treasure as I waited for the wonderful water to warm all by itself. No fire needed.

I didn’t sleep that night. I read the stolen novel from cover to cover, the whole of my life, right up until I ripped Prince Merodach’s still beating heart from his pleading chest with my angelic hand. I murdered Ashgard’s Dark Prince, and thus sealed my fate.

How could this be? How could someone upon layer eight even know of my existence, much less my entire life, verbatim?

Yet, here it was. Every single moment, every single decision, perfectly recorded for all time and eternity. My many sins were written right here in black and white for curious eyes to freely behold.

I felt violated and naked as I finished the last page and closed the painful little book. I looked for the prophetic author but found only initials. The inside cover had my life listed as a work of fiction. I’ll admit to you now, I had to laugh at that little revelation. It had most definitely seemed like reality while it was happening. I yet bear the horrible scars to prove it.

I missed my home now more than ever. I missed my beloved friends I could never see again. And, I missed my precious Varick with all my heart and what little of my soul yet remained to me.

I won’t claim to know who the author was or how they saw my tormented life, but I am extremely grateful the gifted seer stopped their words before recording my fateful ending. I alone wish to be the purveyor of the words written herein so inquiring eyes may know my true end, lest I be heralded a hero to even one soul upon even one layer.

Let it be known that I, Jenevier Olesia Embarr, tore the still beating heart from the pleading chest of Merodach, Prince of Wrothdem and crushed it before him in my mighty hand. I witnessed, judged, sentenced, and executed him without a summons from God. In so doing, I murdered this man and freely took the life of an innocent.

Now, if you’ve read the prophetic story of my life, you know well why I carried out this horrific deed. Merodach was twisted, evil, destructive, and definitely no innocent. At least this was true in the eyes of all who knew him. Alas, I am but a created being, flawed at best. My ways are not His ways and my thoughts are not His thoughts. I couldn’t hear Merodach’s pitiful pleas for love and mercy through my bitter, vengeful rage. But God did. I was meant to be the vessel He used to finally turn Merodach’s wicked heart. I was unknowingly sent by God to show the dark Prince what love was, what it truly felt like.

The Prince of Wrothdem had been denied the meaning of love since he was orphaned as a babe. With Merodach’s heart now capable of priceless love, coupled with his wonderful gift of Elven magic, God was going to use this newly remade Prince to bring prosperous peace and righteous unity to all of Ashgard. Merodach was to be given a second chance to fulfill the role God had intended for him. If he did not, the summons would come down and I would have been chosen to carry out his long overdue death sentence.

Yet, I alone robbed Merodach of his destiny. I alone robbed God of His divine plan. And it was me who robbed the good people of Ashgard from knowing the true euphoric paradise intended for them and their children.

I murdered an innocent!

My vile act was witnessed by my brother Vareilious, my summons was sent down to Vareen, I was judged by my beloved Varick, and my sentence was mercifully carried out by God’s own glorious hand.


Page 2

Chapter 2

Vareilious

(vah-REEL-ee-us)

 

 

 

When I beheld my majestic Guardian standing before me, my joy was lifted to the heavens. The heartbreaking spell I’d been under was broken by his regal growl. Merodach’s drugs no longer clouded my mind and all was right with the world again.

My first love, Alastyn, was freed from his self-imposed horse bondage. The cursed Shadow Wraiths now roamed the beautiful palace on wobbly human legs, bewildered and confused, but free.

I headed back to Vanahirdem with my loyal friend, Vareilious, who to his valiant credit, only stopped once to speak of what he had heard.

In my hazy dream world, I had confessed my undying love for him. Not for Varick, and not for Dante, but for Vareilious. I professed hidden desires and spoke aloud things that should never have been given voice.

“My perfect love, I know now your true feelings for me. I desperately needed your declaration to validate my tormented soul. I shall press you no more, for it is a sin against you and my brother to do so. Yet know this, my enchanting maiden. I will always be with you. God Himself will never let me forsake you. I have only ever loved you, Jenevier. Always remember that. Now I will wing you to your magical wedding and my blessed brother. We will never speak of this again, tiny Angel. But I will never forget it.”

He whispered that last part. Yet, I heard him.

Vareilious tenderly kissed my forehead and smiled. Then, we made our way back to our beautiful, ethereal home—Vanahirdem, the city of my heart.

 

*****

 

We were met with neither glorious wedding bells nor shouts of praise and victory. Instead, our Commander-in-Chief, Valadrog, stood within the gate as all Vanir stood, downcast, behind him.

“Warrior Vareilious, you were witness to the execution?”

Valadrog’s booming voice, even when kind, caused me to tremble.

“Yes, Father, and it was glorious!”

Vareilious recounted the entire episode with minute detail. How he had sensed me, how he heard me (he left out the part we were never to mention again), and how his growls broke the spell, clearing my mind. He then recited, with added dramatic effects, every single word exchange between me and Prince Merodach. He even acted out some of the gory parts and finished his excited reenactment with a radiant smile spread across his angelic face.

“It’s true then,” Varick solemnly said as he stepped forward to stand between his majestic parents.

The elegant Vareen, with her hands outstretched, spoke the words as God revealed them to her. She told of the glorious plans He had in store for Merodach, Wrothdem, and the entire fourth layer realm of Ashgard.

I was in shock. My legs would have betrayed me if not for the support of my ever loyal friend and brother, Vareilious.

“So it has been witnessed, so it has been spoken—” Varick’s words broke off with bitter sobs. “Mother, I cannot.”

“You have no choice, my son. None of us do. Whether you speak the words or not, the guilt remains and the sentencingwillcome.”

“I love her. She is my Anicee. The guilt is mine! I trained her to carry out this very deed. Now,Iam to stand in judgment ofher? For simply doing what we all knew she was here to learn to do? How is this justice?”

“And we may yet have to stand before God for our part in this vile murder,” Vareen whispered.

I could barely speak. Nothing being said was making any sense. “Murder? You accuse me ofmurder?”

“No, my child, God accuses you. Vareilious gave testimony and now your beloved Varick must judge you. Apologies, my child, we are so sorry for what we have done to you—”

Vareen’s tears choked off her words. Valadrog took over for her.

“In our zealous quest to save you, dear child, we have brought about your ultimate demise.”

“I am to die? But, you of all people know the treacherous sins this one man has committed against hundreds of innocents. My executions have never been deemedmurderbefore. I don’t understand.”

“At the end of things, dear child, Merodach was repentant. He begged you for mercy. Mercy you could have granted, but denied him. Have you ever carried out a summons where the guilty pleaded for forgiveness?”

I answered the wise warrior the only way I could. “No, sir.”

“Yes, and that’s because they had gone past mercy. They had sinned past accepting grace. Only then does God hand down the summons. There was no order against the man, no summons for you to carry out, child. This… well, this you did on your own.”

“I see.” My voice sounded so tiny.

I looked to my beautiful brothers and sisters. Every eye was glassed over with sorrowful tears, every head lowered.

“Apologies, dearest family, forgive me. I selfishly acted out of vengeance and I will accept whatever punishment God demands. Varick, my love, please continue. I do not hold you at fault, dear husband. I acted alone and I do not wish God’s anger to be kindled against any of you because ofmysins. Don’t make my guilt all the greater. Speak it now and let it be done. My heart will always be yours. I’m sorry I failed you, all of you.”

I fell to my weary knees, bowed my head, and numbly accepted my fate.

Varick’s shaky voice continued with the ardent task he had no choice but to perform. “So it has been witnessed, so it has been spoken. Jenevier Olesia Embarr, sister Vanir, loving wife of my soul. My most precious Anicee, because your sin was committed egregiously and with prideful vengeance, and because this one sin has unduly harmed an entire layer of this universe, your sentence can be nothing less… than death.”

“No!” Vareilious screamed as he lunged for Varick’s throat.

Varick made no move to resist him. He kept his tearful eyes on me alone. I know my beloved wished only to share in my sentence with me.

Valadrog pulled the enraged warrior off his shattered son. “Calm yourself, Vareilious. You of all people know Varick can only speak the words God places in his mouth for sentencing. Can you not see he wishes for you to kill him before he has to witnessherexecution?”

Vareilious calmed as Varick numbly mouthed out the rest of my judgment.

“The sentence is death and it is to be carried out, forthwith, by the warrior servant of God… Vareilious.”

Varick fell to his knees, reaching out to lovingly touch my bowed head before it was severed from my trembling body. I looked up to meet his beautiful amber eyes for the last time.

“This was supposed to be my wedding day,” I whispered.

Sobs shook my betrothed’s massive body as Vareilious’s protests echoed throughout the Thralldom Mountains.

“No! I refuse! I willnotdo this thing. God will have to strike me dead first, for if I unsheathe this holy sword, it will be to remove my own head, not hers. Not the only woman I have ever loved. Not by my hand.”

“Stop this immediately!” I’d never heard Vareen’s voice so shrill, so terrified. “Stop defying an order from God lest you fall beside her by His hand.”

“Then so be it. I will not kill her. You do it, Vareen. You carry out the commandment of God.” The trembling giant offered the hilt of his blade to the elegant seer.

Vareen stepped back. “I cannot.”

“Then you, Valadrog, chief of us all, you kill her,” Vareilious yelled as he turned the hilt toward the ancient warrior.

“God forgive me, I cannot,” Valadrog said through his tears.

“Anyone? One of you must step forward and do the will of God. I cannot!”

No one answered Vareilious’s cries for help. Tears poured down the mighty sentinel’s face as he looked to the crowd, pleading with each of them to have mercy on him and take up the blade in his stead.

“Then, God will take vengeance upon us all for our disobedience,” Vareen whispered.

“Aye, Brother.” Vittorio stepped forward. “I cannae take her life. But I’ll gladly take her punishment. Remove my head an’ my wings as well. For if ye claim my wee sister, I wulnae be using them again. Strike now, Brother, an’ see if God will accept my sacrifice.”

I could take no more. No one else I loved would suffer one moment longer for my cursed existence. I wished the day I had been born were blotted out from all history. I wished the accursed day could not be spoken of throughout all time. My change was swift and powerful. Vashti now stood before them.

“Enough! My sin is mine alone. I have sinned against God and none of you shall pay for that. God demands my life, so I shall letHimtake it.”

The next second, I was standing before the gigantic doors of the ethereal temple in the middle of Vanahirdem. Placing my swirling misty hands upon both handles, I listened for the haunting melody to blow through the intricate lattice, ordaining my admittance.

I heard nothing save the loving voice within my head. “Enter, Jenevier, my child.”

I easily pushed open the massive doors as my mask fell away. Running to the center of the grand hall, I threw myself across the mercy seat and poured my sorrowful soul out to God.

I knew I had loved, and loved completely. I knew love had been returned to me a hundredfold. I knew I had done good in this world. And, I also knew I had done irreconcilable harm. The tears I poured out upon that sacred seat were not tears for me. I was past that. I cried for my withered friend, Jezreel. I cried for my beloved Alastyn. I cried for my loving husband, Varick. I cried for my best and truest friend, Vareilious. But most of all, I cried for the poor people of Ashgard who would never know the joys God had laid by in store for them, save for my selfish hatred and rancid pride. I begged for forgiveness and pleaded with God to take my death as a sacrifice and trade my wretched life for Merodach’s. I prayed He would rip my soul from within me and place it in the crumpled form of the murdered Prince, allowing everyone I loved to benefit through the man I had once hated.

Then… I begged God for swiftness in this deed.

Chapter 3

Anicee

(ah-NEE-cee)

 

 

 

I woke face down in a putrid stinking swamp. Mud under my fingernails, creepy crawly things covering my body, tangled within my once beautiful hair. I gasped for air, tearing at the hideous little vermin trying to make a meal of my flesh. I walked out of that rancid bayou and didn’t stop until I came to a little town called Lake Charles. I knew by the look of the people I was on layer eight. And it didn’t take long to figure out I was in Louisiana.

I had been called to Louisiana many times as Vashti, but that was usually near Baton Rouge or New Orleans. This lovely little town of Lake Charles was big enough to hide in, small enough to still be beautiful, and seemed to boast more tourists than residents. It was the perfect place to get lost.

I thought I was dead and this was my Otherworld. No one looked my way. No one ran screaming from the filthy stench that was turning my own stomach. Lake Charles is where I discovered how to fend for myself and take what I needed.

I must have washed my hair eight or ten times before my curls no longer reeked of the swamp water still lingering in my nostrils.

It only took me a couple hours to realize God hadn’t taken my life… He’d taken my life away. A fate I feel may be worse than peaceful death. When my belly screamed for food, I knew I lived, but wished I did not.

God had indeed ripped out all but a faint trace of my soul. I hoped Merodach used the precious gift wisely. I walked through those quaint little back streets, a mere shell of a human. I was likened unto that inviting pink cookie jar sitting on Aunt Marlise’s cabinet. An enticing, alluring promise. But when sought within, was full of disappointment and empty, save for the crumbs.

I wallowed in self-pity for a dreadfully long time as I roamed the eighth layer. Eventually I found myself standing at the entrance to that familiar apartment building in Detroit. Hands pressed against the front doors, tears streaming down my hollow cheeks. I prayed for the children I’d once held in my arms, imparting sweet, warming love upon.

I wanted desperately to hold that quivering little girl once more. I would have sought her out, sought them all out. But I was neither blessed, nor haunted, with a single name from that tragic yet glorious night.

I walked up the many flights of stairs and stood outside the door which contained the memories of the beginning of my lost past. A charming couple carrying a small babe and leading a chattering young girl left the apartment dressed in their finest clothing, smiling and happy.

Gone were the horrors that once lived within those painted walls. Love now filled the humble home. Time had moved on.

I have no idea how long I’ve walked, nor what day it happens to be, nor what year in which I live. But my haunting reflection never changes and all the shattered pieces of my heart can never be restored.

I roam this layer doing neither good nor ill to its inhabitants. I simply walk and breathe and sleep.

When I first woke in that Louisiana bayou, my left hand ached as if a nail had been driven through it. Later, as I bathed, I could only sit and stare at the deep indention that now replaced the spot where my beautiful woven tattoo had marked the place Varick’s manacle once fit. I was no longer his Anicee.

I still cry daily for the husband I never got to marry and the perfect love I threw away. I know he mourned my death just as surely as I know he now loves again. I am haunted by dreams of his fair silver-haired children dancing gaily through the streets of that beautiful city, while the perfect smile of their gorgeous father watches over them.

Oh God! Why didn’t You kill me? Why are my tormented bones not now rotting within those sacred mountains? Why has my consuming grief not snuffed out my pitiful life? Is there no end to my suffering, to my punishment?

I proclaim to the Reader now, I have gone weeks without food or drink. Yet I perish not. All I’ve managed to accomplish is to add to the pain and misery of my worthless existence.

Tomorrow, I will continue my journey south and be done with the bitter chill invading Baltimore.

 

*****

 

I haven’t laid pen to paper in a terribly long time, Reader.

I am now on a small stretch of land off the coast of Georgia—still on layer eight—known as Tybee Island. The winter months have passed and the rising heat now pushes me back to the northern parts of this forsaken realm. I can imagine no worse hell than the one I now live.

My mind remained dormant as I wasted away the dreary winter months. Not a single thought of my former life had even encroached upon my dreams… until last night. I dreamt of a woman with long silky hair the color of sunshine, screaming out from the cursed pain of childbirth. The mesmerizing emerald eyes of the fair babe matched those of her handsome raven-haired father.

I plunged a blade deep into my decrepit heart. Not a single drop of blood spilled forth, not one. I managed only to ruin the lovely pink dress I’d procured just yesterday. And now, I walk. Newly clad all in black—displaying without, to this unseeing world, what truly resides within.

I remember fondly the beautiful lehenga Vittorio had gifted me after my first mission. My smile came unbidden as I recalled the strange words he whispered in my ear as I unknowingly asked for and purchased that lovely red dress.

He only wanted to see me smile.

And… I walk.


Page 3

Chapter 4

Jenevier

(ZHEN-ah-veer)

 

 

 

I’d almost forgotten you were there, Reader.

I have traveled far and wide since I left Georgia. I spent much time in the beautiful Smoky Mountains, pretending they were Thralldom. I slept amongst the trees, bathed in the cold streams, and feasted upon the many different herbs covering those hills. Yet, not once did I glimpse a feisty little Pixie or stumble upon an enchanting young man with olive skin, strange markings, and an innocent heart. There is no magic in layer eight, no enchantment. I hate this place.

I journey through town after town and city after city. Ever walking, ever restless. I now stand, once again, in the middle of the busy streets of downtown Detroit. My heart pulled me back to the only place upon this horrid layer where the ghosts of my past life yet remain.

 

*****

 

“Ma’am? Ma’am? Can you not hear me? Ma’am, you can’t stand here. Come on. You’re gonna get yourself killed. Let’s go.”

I heard the concerned voice but turned not. I couldn’t bear to see another death, another crime, another painful tear. Only when I felt the increasing tug upon my arm did I stop writing and look into the worried eyes of a man trying desperately to save a forgotten woman who wished only for death.

I stared at him for many heartbeats before I found my voice. “You can see me?”

“Of course I can see you. Now, come with me before you get the both of us killed.”

I followed his frantic voice to the crowded sidewalk lining the congested street. Blaring horns and angry shouts accompanied our journey.

I couldn’t stop staring at this strangely forceful man. Well, I couldn’t stop staring at the back of his head as he pulled me along behind him.

“How is it you can see me?”

“How is it I can…” He was shocked at my questioning. “Because you were blocking all of downtown rush hour traffic. That’s how.”

I looked around at the hundreds of unseeing eyes now focused solely on me.

I can only describe the look on his stern face as… cross. “Do you have a death wish or something?”

“Yes. Yes, I do,” I whispered. “Can you hear thoughts? Do you see what hides inside the heart? I didn’t realize ones with such talent resided within this realm.”

“You need help, Lady. You’re coming with me.”

The man held fast to my arm as he pushed past the gathering crowd, leading me to an older building.Precinct 6was written in white letters on the glass door. He escorted me into a tiny room with but a single table and a couple hard metal chairs.

That little table is where I now sit as I record the bizarre events unfolding before me.

“Coffee?” he asked, smiling, sort of.

“Do you have tea?”

“No. I’m afraid all I can offer you is a bitter black cup of Joe.” His amused laughter was warm and gentle.

“Gratitude and apologies, good sir. I’ll be fine.”

He took a drink from his cup and nodded his head toward me. “What’re you writing there?”

“My life.” I only glance at him before returning my attention back to this journal.

“May I see it?”

I stopped writing then. I looked deep into his tired eyes. He didn’t seem bent on ill intentions toward me, curiosity only.

“If you wish,” I said as I handed him this journal.

He sat for a long time, quietly reading my words and drinking his coffee Joe.

“And where’s this stolen book which recounts your previous life?” he finally asked.

I pulled the battered old novel from the leather bag I’d worn draped across my chest since my first week of exile.

“May I seeitas well?” he said, reaching.

This was a much harder request to fulfill. “Do you promise to return it? It’s my only worldly possession. My only window back to the people I love.”

“I promise,” he answered. “You can’t trust anybody if you can’t trust me.”

He smiled then. His grin carried no malice, sympathy perhaps, but no malice.

He read for hours as I studied his common eighth layer features. Perhaps he could be considered handsome, I’m not certain. I cannot judge beauty on this layer. The beings I find the most charming, the most interesting, are not usually the ones admired on their television sets or upon their giant movie screens. I mean, he looks to me much like all the others rushing about within this sterile building. He has short black hair—not Alastyn’s raven black, just the normal Earth realm black. His is sprinkled about on the sides with bits of shimmering gray and he has that odd patch of hair above his mouth that so many eighth layer men share.

That’s one of the biggest differences between the people here and the ones back in Ashgard—all the body hair. I mean, it’s not a bad thing I suppose, just different. My people have hair upon their heads only. The people of layer eight boasted hair pretty much everywhere. On their face, their arms, their legs. Some even have hair on their bodies, their chest and their back. I giggled when I thought about how funny Alastyn would look with hair upon his face, Jezreel with it covering her arms, or even the glorious Vittorio with silver hair upon his magnificent chest… hysterical.

Actually, Valadrog was the only person I had met upon the whole of layer four who had hair somewhere besides his head.And he wasn’t crowned with a single strand, I thought.Bald as a newborn babe, he was. Blessed with silver hanging only from the corners of his sternly set mouth.

I didn’t realize I’d laughed out loud until I looked back at the man. He was staring at me, rather worrisomely, actually.

“Apologies, I was lost in my own remembrances.” I’m pretty sure I blushed, my cheeks felt hot. “Please, continue.”

I noticed then that his eyes had once been a brilliant blue. They were now faded, tired, and framed by tiny lines matching the ones currently furrowing his brow.

Only once did someone knock on the door and bring in a flat white box and a blessed steaming cup of tea. It was foul compared to Aunt Marlise’s but it was especially kind of them to have tried. I smiled at the young woman handing me the bitter drink and she looked at me with pity in her eyes.

I didn’t like how that made me feel, not one bit.I believe, if this is to be the common reaction, I prefer it better when I roamed about unnoticed.

“Don’t you want any pizza?” He asked his question between large bites.

I inclined my head toward him, respectfully. “I am fine.”

“Aww, come on. You gotta try this incredible pie. Bet you’ve never tasted anything like it before.”

The smell alone turned my stomach. I took a small bite of the grease covered bread he insisted on sticking in my face and prayed that would be enough to satisfy his demands. I used the foul tea to wash down the even fouler oil now coating the inside of my mouth. I presume the twisted look upon my face answered his next question.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. You don’t like pizza? Everyone from around herelovespizza.”

I choked out a cough and tried to clear my throat. “I’m not from around here.”

“So I gather.” He stared intently at me. I returned his curious gaze. “Is there somewhere I can take you?”

“Gratitude, but I can manage just fine.”

“I can see that,” he said with a laugh. “But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a decent place to sleep around here that still uses keys.”

I spoke not.

“The precinct is no place for someone like you to spend the night, and I can’t just let you walk out of here not knowing where you’ll end up or what’ll happen to you.”

“Gratitude for your concern, but it’s not necessary.” I reached for my book but he snatched it off the table. I could only stare at him, confused. “But, you promised.” Tears were burning the backs of my eyes.

“Hey now, it’s okay. I’m not going tokeepit. But I am curious as to how it ends. I only want to finish the story you feel is your life. I only want to find out what’s going on in that pretty little head of yours.”

He smiled then winked, as if he were speaking to an injured child. I could only sniff and brush the tears away.

The man stood up, still holding my book. “I’ve got the perfect place in mind—walking distance from here. I’ll finish your book tonight and return it to your lovely hands in the morning,” he promised as he led me back through the building filled with busy people and ringing boxes.

“Hey, Chief!”

He waved his hand in the air but didn’t look toward the yelling man. “Be back later, Snyder. Busy now.”

We left the noisy precinct, heading out into the crowded streets. I fell behind almost immediately and lost sight of Chief. A strong hand grabbed mine, pulling me through the suffocating masses.

“You’re gonna have to keep up, little lady.”

The familiar reference brought fresh pain to my troubled heart. I reached out and took my next change of clothing from the nearby display rack being wheeled into a storefront. When Chief saw the new garments draped across my arm, his eyes flashed with fury.

“Where’d you get that?”

“The same place I always—”

He cut my words off with a stern glare. “You can’t keep doing this.” Chief grabbed the clothes from my hand and pulled me inside the open shop. “I’m very sorry, Ma’am. My friend here took these clothes and I need to pay for them.”

The elegant woman behind the counter looked at him and raised a single eyebrow as she replied. “These aren’tourclothes. We don’t carry anything like that here.”

Chief turned those furious eyes back on me and spoke through gritted teeth. “Tell me where you got them.”

“H-here,” I stuttered.

He let out an exasperated sigh and jerked on my captive hand, dragging me from one store to the next, in vain.

“Listen to me, Chief. God provides what I need. Not in excess, but in necessity. I know when I walk by what has been intended for me and I thankfully take it.”

“Well, since I can’t figure out where they came from, you can keep them, this time. But you’ve got to quit taking things that don’t belong to you,” he demanded.

“But… theydobelong to me,” I mumbled, more to myself than to him.

“And why did you call me Chief?”

I looked up to find his narrowed eyes searching my face. “That’s how Snyder referred to you, is it not?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Yes, but that’s my title, my job. Not my name. My name’s Tony.”

“Apologies, Tony. It’s very nice to meet you.” I bowed and then extended my hand. “My name is Jenevier Embarr.”

He took my proffered hand. His grip was strong. “Yeah, I figured the first name out pretty quick. I’m sharp like that.” He winked and held up the self-titled paperback.

Tony squeezed my hand and studied me for a long moment. I could have sworn I saw a tiny spark of belief flash in his eyes, and then it disappeared.

“Here we go.” He opened the glass door, leading me into a large room full of overstuffed furniture, stopping only when he was face to face with a young man behind yet another counter.

I picked up a plastic card and turned to leave. Tony grabbed my arm.

“And just where do you think you’re going, little lady?”

I looked down at his hand and he quickly released me.

I don’t like being pawed at or grabbed, I thought, absently. “To my room,” I said.

“What room? We haven’t even checked in yet.”

The polite young gentleman behind the counter was now speaking to Tony. “Will you be requiring an additional room, sir?”

He turned quickly as he spoke to the concierge. “What do you mean,additional?”

“A room in addition to the one Madam has procured.”

“And just when did sheprocurethis room?” Tony questioned the confused clerk.

“Only just.” The young man tilted his head to the side. “Are you feeling well, sir?”

This timeIwas the one dragginghimaway by the hand. “Come, Tony. We’ll discuss this later.”

My new foundbosstook my plastic card key and pushed a button on the wall as I headed to the door marked STAIRS.

“Room 434, huh?” He was staring up at some lights on the wall. “So, when and how’d you manage this?” He turned to me then. “Where are you going now?”

“To find my room.”

A hole slid open in the wall and he stepped inside. “Are you coming?”

“Where?”

He jerked me into the hole before it closed back over. “To your room. Have you already forgotten? And do you want to explain this to me now or later?” He was shaking the plastic card in front of my face.


Page 4

“I do not know what more you wish to hear from me, Tony. I’ve told you before. When I am in need, it’s there.”

“So, yourGod—who supposedly killed you or banished you or whatever the hell he did—is taking care of your every need?”

“I can only presume that is true, yes.” I raised my eyes to meet his incredulous gaze. “It has been this way since the moment I woke in that Louisiana bayou.”

The wall opened back up and Tony led me to my intended door. The card key worked perfectly. I collapsed onto the bed, exhausted.

“Well, you make yourself comfy and I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said as he turned to leave.

I jumped up, halting his retreating arm. “Where are you going?”

“Home. I need a stiff drink and time to read.” He held up my tattered book for emphasis.

“No. Please, don’t take the book. What if something happens and I never see you again?” My words were a frantic plea. “The only thing making my torturous exile bearable is the treasure you now hold.”

I’m certain my oncoming panic was evident in my terrified eyes as I held fast to the startled man, my heart going wild within my chest.

Tony slowly relaxed, no longer resisting my urgent tugs. “Well, where am I supposed to read it then?”

I pointed to the lounge against the wall.

“The couch? This book will take mehoursto finish,” he complained.

I spoke not. I only stared at him.

“Okay, fine.” His shoulders slumped forward in resignation. “You get some rest and I’ll read.”

He sighed loudly as he reluctantly plopped down on the hard sofa.

Chapter 5

Tony Delvado

(TOH-nee dell-VAH-doh)

 

 

 

When I woke this morning, Tony was sitting on the couch, elbows on his knees, head in his hands. I quietly slipped out of bed.

“And just where do you think you’re going, Miss Embarr?”

I jumped at the sound of his voice. I’d spent years in solitude. My communication skills are severely lacking and I have become accustomed to being neither seen nor heard.

Instinctively, I placed my hand over my racing heart. “Oh, you startled me. I thought you were sleeping.”

“On this lumpy old couch?” Tony had a rather incredulous look on his face.

“Apologies. Feel free to lie upon the bed and get some rest. I’m going to bathe and change into my fresh clothing.”

“Get some rest? How long do you plan on that bath taking?”

“Until I feel like myself again.” I spoke as honestly as I could.

“Oh, yeah. I forgot… Mermaid.” He chuckled and let his weary head fall back against the couch.

I couldn’t help the disappointing sigh I let escape. “I see you have read my life, yet you do not believe.”

“Well, the way I see it, I have two options here.” He stood, groaning as he stretched his arms and shoulders. “Either I drive you to the nearest mental hospital and check you in for the rest of your delusional life…” He collapsed across the crumpled bedcovers, kicking off his shoes.

I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew he hadn’t finished. “Or?”

“Or, I choose to accept a little bit of the oddities I experienced with you yesterday and take this book assymbolicof your life experiences, not literal. Either way, I have someone I think you should meet. I’ll rest while you soak,” he said with a yawn.

Later, after we’d both eaten, Tony escorted me in the ever-present eighth layer form of transportation, a car. It was horrific. The terrorizing experience reminded me of my first trip into the clouds with Vittorio—mind-reeling and gut-wrenching. I could barely breathe the whole time it was moving. I half jumped, half fell out the door the moment it came to a stop.

“What are you doing?” He grabbed my arm, jerking me to my feet. “Are you crazy?”

“Wh-where are you taking me?”

“You act like you’ve never seen a car before.”

I dusted off my clothing. “I haveseenthousands of them. I’ve just never been trapped inside one.”

He laughed as he helped steady my wobbly legs.

“Tony, you didn’t answer my question. Where are we going?”

“I’m going to be completely honest with you, Jenevier, and just lay it all out there.” He leaned back against the car, crossing his arms over his chest. “No matter what’s going on in that curl-covered noggin of yours, this whole thing is a complete load of bull. I’m a seasoned Detroit City cop and I’ve worked these streets longer than you’ve been alive.” He looked around at the people passing by as he continued. “I’ve witnessed crap that would put your little fictional book there to shame. The only thing keeping me from locking your odd little tush up in a nut house, is a rookie I trained a few years back.” His eyes came back to rest upon me. “And that, tinyAngel, is where we’re going.” He chuckled at his jabbing reference toward me.

I was shocked when Tony’s jacket started singing. He pulled out a black square and put it to his ear.

“What is it, Snyder?” He paused as if he were listening intently. “No, I can’t right now. Call Mason in on that one. As a matter of fact, call Mason in to cover for me the next few days. I’ve got something to take care of that’s pulling me out of town. Call if you can’t handle it, Snyder.”

Tony put the curious little oddity back in his jacket pocket. I was beginning to worry. He was yelling about locking me up in some kind of house, and now he’s talking to a man who’s nowhere to be seen.

“Tony? How do you fare? Do your wits flee?”

“I’m fine.” He threw his arm across my shoulders and started walking, forcing me along with him. “I guess if you’ve never been in a car, it would be ridiculous for me to ask if you’ve ever flown.”

“Of course I have flown.”

“No, not in your make-believe Vashti mask. Have you ever flown in a plane?”

“What’s a plane?”

“Enough said.” He placed both hands on my shoulders, turning me to face him. “Okay, listen up. All I’m trying to do here is help you. I don’t know any other way to do that than to take you to some podunk little town in Oklahoma called Marlow. Now, that’s much further than I care to drive. We can take a plane into Dallas-Fort Worth, which is as close as we can get. From there, we’ll rent a car and drive up to Marlow.”

“Why Marlow, Oklahoma?”

“That rookie I was telling you about? It’s where he lives.”

“What’s a rookie?”

“Sheesh, girl.” He took my elbow and led me into yet another building crowded with busy people. “It’s somebody who’s brand-new at a job. He came in fresh from the academy. I taught him all I knew. But he wasn’t from around here. The streets of Detroit can be a rather dreadful kind of scene some nights. One case in particular, well… it broke him. He moved back to Oklahoma and is now the sheriff in Marlow. I think you two need to talk is all.” He led me down a strange, echoing tunnel. “You ready?”

“No,” I admitted.

Tony just laughed.

Chapter 6

Marlow

(MARR-loh)

 

 

 

I don’t believe I have ever been to Texas before, perhaps on a mission once, I couldn’t remember for sure. I knew for a fact I hadn’t been there during this second life.

I’d onlythoughtit was too hot in Georgia during the summer months. That was nothing compared to Texas. I felt as if the accursed sun was right above my head. Like I could just reach up and touch it. There were no beautiful green mountains for enchanted creatures to hide and play in, not in Texas. All around me was dry wind and sunshine.

How can it still be so hot with the wind blowing?

The car ride to Marlow wasn’t nearly as bad now that I knew what was going to happen. I quietly listened to the music Tony had turned on and gazed out the window at all the brown, all the dust, and all the cows. As far as I could see, there was nothing new to catch my view.

Tony lazily rested his arm over the top of the steering wheel and tilted his head toward me. “So, you think God took your soul and gave it to this guy you murdered?”

“I can only assume so, yes.”

“So… you don’t have a soul anymore?” He cocked one eyebrow, looking at me sideways.

“Only a small piece of one.” I looked back out my window at all the dust. “I feel it stir within me at times,” I whispered.

He thankfully turned his attention back to driving. “I always thought people without souls were evil,” he mumbled, mostly to himself.

“As did I.”

“I don’t get the feeling you’re evil.” He smiled sheepishly but kept his eyes fixed on the road. “But hell, what do I know? I mean, I’ve only been a cop for the last twenty-five years, and here I am… escorting an admitted murderer, and an obvious thief, clear across these United States.”

Perhaps he was joking. In truth he probably was, but my childish temper reared its ugly head. I hated all this lifeless brown and I hated this long dusty drive.

“I have broken no eighth layer law,” I snapped at him, viciously. “How is it you hold me in contempt for a crime I committed in a place you don’t even believe exists?”

“But your thieving ways started here, Milady.” He winked at me then.

Yeah, he was pushing my buttons and I didn’t like it.

“You witnessed such yourself and yet you could not prove it. I only took what was given to me. I’m not a thief. Do you condemn a man and punish him in Detroit, only to drag him to Texas and punish him anew for the same crime?”

“Well, no. Once the crime is paid for, it’s paid for.”

“I was punished for my crime in Vanahirdem. You claim no jurisdiction over that holy city and I expect no more judgments from you for myassumedcrimes. The only reason I’m living on this ugly forsaken layer is to pay my debt to God, not you.”

“Hey, I’m sorry.”

His hand left the wheel, searching for mine. I pulled away, as close as I could get to the door.

“I was just thinking out loud, trying to rationalize this whole thing in my head. That’s all. No condemnation here. We good?” He did turn and look at me then, regret painfully obvious in his dulled eyes.

I softened a bit and sighed. “I would have a hard time believing such a story had I not lived through it myself. How can I expect any more from you? You don’t even have magic on this layer. How could you possibly believe?”

“My thoughts, exactly.” A curt grin turned up one corner of his mouth. “Here we are, Miss Embarr.”

“Where?”

“Marlow, Oklahoma.”

This placed was nothing like Detroit. “A city?”

“A town.”

“Where?”

“Right over there.” He pointed.

“It’s barely a village. How is it you call it a town?”

Tony only laughed as we pulled up to the tiny little police station he’d told me about, and went inside.

 

*****

 

“Well, I do declare, Tony Delvado. What in the world are you doing all the way out here? You look good, Tony, you look real good.”

The two friends hugged and laughed. I could tell they cared a great deal for each other, like brothers. Tony had filled me in on what a cop or police officer does here on layer eight. They function as a vital part of the same type of judicial system as the majestic Vanir. They’re much like Vinika, they collect evidence. The main difference I could see was that they took the accused to the judge. Vanir go to the accused. So, they were like thewarriorsof the eighth layer.

The younger of the two men had an even, lean build. He was tall, probably six foot one or two, with sandy blond hair, nearly the same color as all the dust flying around in the air. His skin was tanned bronze by the ever present sun and I couldn’t distinguish the color of his eyes because they were squinted closed by that same burning glare. He had a sharp, masculine nose and a whole mouth full of pretty white teeth. His laugh seemed young and naïve. But his features turned stern when Tony pointed my way.

“Jenevier, I’d like you to meet Rankin. Rankin Hart, this is Miss Jenevier Embarr.”

The sandy-haired warrior extended me his hand, but not his lovely smile. “Howdy, Ma’am. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

I bowed slightly as I took his proffered hand. “Hello, good sir. To tell you the truth, I’m not completely sure myself.”

I tried my best to mimic his accent. I’ve found that people are more at ease when you don’t seem soaliento them. I’d gotten pretty good with many of the accents on this layer and had even picked up lots of their strange sayings and phrases.

“Come on, you two,” Tony said. “We need to go somewhere a little more private.”

Rankin led us to a room much the same as the one I had sat in for so long with Tony back in Detroit.

“I must say, my curiosity is more than just a little piqued. Tell me what’s wrong, Tony,” Rankin said.

“Nothing’s wrong, Rankin. I just ran into this lovely lady standing in the middle of a busy intersection, writing in her journal. She freely offered to let me read it. Parts of it put me in mind of you.” Tony smiled and slapped the younger man on the shoulder.

I did not believe it possible, but the sheriff narrowed his eyes even more. “So, you came all this way to try and set me up with some stranger you found wandering those filthy Detroit streets? How pathetic do you think I am?”

“Aww, come on, Buddy. It’s not like that. I just wanted you to read her story. You might find certain parts of it very interesting.”

“Thanks, Tony, but I don’t have time to read some junkie’s sob story. I have a whole town to protect out here,” Rankin snapped.

Now, I will freely admit I didn’t understand everything this man said. Yet, his tone had caused my temper to rise. Many people on this layer shared in that ability. I didn’t fully understand their inflections. I guess you could say, they rubbed me the wrong way.

I purposefully put a sharp edge on my words. “Apologies, Sheriff, I would never dream of taking up your precious time. You are not worthy the honor of knowing my life as a Vanir. It’s obvious to me you didn’t pass your transformation. When the time for your sacred Pyrolysis neared, you faltered.”

One corner of his mouth twitched, turning up in a superior sneer. “What the hell is she talking about, Tony?”

“What I’m talking about, failed warrior, is the fact that you ran like a coward from God’s summons in the big city to hide out in some stinky old cow pasture, pretending to adjudicate the law. You couldn’t handle the real pain oozing from the underbelly of this wicked layer.” I slammed my hands down hard atop the metal table. “You ran back home crying for your mommy, while demons roam free, devouring little children!”

Blood now raced through my veins as it once had long ago in Vanahirdem. My senses were tingling and my hair felt as if it stood on its end. I sensed the once familiar electric pulses emanating from deep within my marrow. I tried, futilely, to rein this tempting emotion in before it consumed me.

“Now listen here, little lady,” Rankin yelled.

Andthatwas all it took. “How dare you, Rankin Hart. How dare you call me thus? I have executed a thousand more than you even have the guts to merely witness. Never… call… me… little.”

The wicked smile I flashed him hit the very nerve I had intended. Instinctively, I crouched down—almost feral-like—when Rankin’s shoulder muscles twitched. My mouth watered. I felt that long forgotten heat trying to channel itself through my body. I felt alive. For the first time in years, my fingertips tingled. I imagined my diamond claws extending, dripping morbidly with the crimson blood of this mundane warrior of naught.

“Whoa, whoa now.” Tony held his hands up toward me. “What the hell, Jenevier? Calm down, Rankin. This isn’t what I intended. Everyone just relax and take a deep breath.”

“Tony! Why in the holy hell did you dump this sack of horseshit in my peaceful little town?” Rankin spat.

I was on the table in the blink of an eye, growling as a rabid beast, spittle gathering at the corners of my mouth. Rankin stumbled back into the corner. Tony grabbed me around the waist and tucked me behind him, pressing me to the wall.

“Dammit, Tony!” Rankin yelled again.

“Now just hold on a minute, Rankin. I swear I’ve never seen her like this. She was so docile and sweet and lost. I had no idea she’d completely freak out on you.”

“Well, now ya know.” He hastily straightened his tan shirt, adjusting his gun belt in the process. He pointed at me. I really hate when people point at me.

“I’m locking that animal up until I can get to the bottom of this,” he said.

Dear Reader, do not think ill of me for I know not where it came from, but I didn’t behave much like a lady during this part. I easily pushed Tony off me and leapt up on that little metal table. Rankin pulled his gun, pointed it at me, and screamed words my racing mind couldn’t comprehend. Tony got back to his feet and tried to diffuse the escalating hostile situation he’d inadvertently created.

I bent down, knees popping loudly, effectively ceasing all speech. “Rankin, Darling.” My voice was cold, icy. I was poised, ready for action. Reflexes heightened to an almost painful extreme. Only my toes and the fingertips of my right hand touched the cold metal I was perched upon. “Let me enlighten you,Brother.” Their widening eyes caused me to chuckle. The sound was eerily menacing. “I plunged a butcher knife through my tormented heart and out the other side.” I lightly touched the spot on my chest. “Not a single drop of blood, dear boy. Not one… little… drop. What do you think your measly gun will do? Do you think you can stop me? Do you think you can pull that trigger before I rip your scrawny neck out?” I sneered viciously. “Are you willing to stake your life upon it?”

“Jenevier, he’s an innocent!” Tony’s words hit their intended mark.

The realization of my near actions rocked the tiny fringe of a soul flailing around inside me. Horrified at my disgusting behavior, I hastily apologized before I ran from the claustrophobic office and out onto the long, dusty road.

And… I walked.


Page 5

Chapter 7

Rankin

(RANK-en)

 

 

 

The blaring cruiser did nothing to slow my pace. Rankin even tried to pull in front of me. I effortlessly jumped over the hood and continued walking.

Tony’s amplified voice yelled out to me. “Jenevier, you forgot your book!”

Those five little words halted my determined gate. I turned to face the stopped car just as Tony was getting out with his hands up in a sign of peaceful surrender.

“Now, just calm down a minute. I didn’t drag you all this way to fight with you. Come on back. We’ll get a bite to eat and you can be on your way,” he reasoned.

I narrowed my eyes as I gave him a level stare. “With my books?”

“Of course, with your books. Just get in the car and ride back to Marlow. If you do this, I promise I’ll never bother you again.”

My skepticism was as clear on my face as it was in my words. “You promise me this? On your honor? As a warrior?”

“Yes, I promise.” Tony held up his right hand. “I swear it.”

“Iwillhold you to that vow.” I leveled my glare. “Understand?”

Tony smiled. “As you say, Milady.”

I rolled my eyes then. He half chuckled.

Tony stepped aside as I slid in the front seat, scooting over hip to hip with the angry, sandy-haired sheriff. I felt bad for how I’d acted, truly.

“Apologies for my outburst, Sheriff Hart. I would never have harmed you, not on purpose.”

He snorted at my words. “You never would’ve gotten the chance,” he grumbled to himself.

I only smiled, knowingly.

“…Hey?”

I turned to look at Tony when he spoke.

“So, was that Vashti back there?” he asked.

I couldn’t help but roll my eyes again. “Do not speak of things you do not understand and look down your nose upon, Tony Delvado.”

“No, I wasn’t making fun.”

I didn’t answer him. I only glanced back out the dirty windshield, chewing on my bottom lip.

“Seriously.” He lightly bumped me with his shoulder. “I just wanted to know, Jenevier. No offense was intended.”

I only sighed. The thought of Vashti, the raw anger, the warming channeling sensation, and the restless fragment of a soul stirring within me… they were all haunting reminders of what I once was but never could be again.

“No, Tony. Only a pure heart and an innocent soul can contain a mask as powerful as Vashti. I have neither.”

 

*****

 

The diner in which we sat was full of dusty old worn-out patrons leading dusty old worn-out lives. They all had the same sun-squinted look. Tired, sapped, not a live spark among them.

Forgoing lunch, Rankin had dropped us off, choosing instead to read my prophetic words in private. I could still see the ruby flash of his break lights as he turned the corner. The poignant vision seared those crimson dots upon my heart. He drove away, my paper treasure now occupying my spot on the seat beside him. The thought made my tummy hurt. Food was the last thing on my mind.

“Is it this hot, dry place that drains them so? Or is it the jobs they do here?” I asked.

Tony looked around at the other customers, shrugged his shoulders, and spoke before he’d completely swallowed his chicken fried steak. “Eh, they look fine to me.”

The little brass bell hanging over the door rang, pulling my attention to the sandy-haired sheriff as he entered. He was taking slow, deliberate steps. As if weights were tied about his ankles. His eyes were no longer squinted but wide with amazement, perhaps. I couldn’t be certain. One thing I did know, they were fixed firmly upon me and that set off alarms all over the place.

I slowly rose from our dining booth, cautiously stepping back from the advancing warrior. My fingertips tingled painfully, my back arched like a cat’s.

“It’s you.” His words started out as a barely audible whisper, but grew with each approaching step. “You’re the one I saw that night. It was definitely your hair and your face. But… youreyes, they were different.”

When Tony heard Rankin’s voice, he looked up to find me retreating and the good sheriff advancing as if he were in a trance. Tony jumped up, blocking his way.

“Hey guys, I thought this was something we were going to discuss back at the station? Check please,” he yelled to the waitress.

The nervous young girl left our slip of paper as all the dusty old patrons looked to their sheriff and then to me. This was uncomfortable for everyone, and I didn’t have the slightest clue what was going on. A rumbling growl was already in my throat when Tony grabbed both my arms, shaking me gently, pulling my gaze back to him, calming me almost instantly.

“Come on, Angel. Let’s go for a stroll, you and me. Okay?” He smiled and I obediently followed his lead.

 

*****

 

The tiny little room in the back of the sheriff’s office seemed even smaller as Tony began speaking. Rankin sat at the metal table. I stood in the corner with my back to the wall, while Tony paced from one end to the other.

“It’s been several years ago now, Jenevier. Rankin and I were on patrol downtown when the cryptic call came into the station house. The informant wouldn’t leave his name and the call couldn’t be traced to any number in existence. But because of the unbelievably horrid allegations, we were compelled to check it out. Rankin here was the first one up the many flights of stairs. He was young and headstrong, wouldn’t wait for backup. Anyways, he kicked the apartment door open… and was never the same.”

Rankin had tears streaming down his dusty face, each one leaving a muddy little trail to mark its passing. He stared, unseeing, as his cracking voice filled in what happened next.

“There were so many of them. The first thing that got me… was the smell. Filth, waste, and blood all miserably mixed together. I can still taste it in the back of my throat. The bitter memory pulls me from sleep, plays about in my mind, always… that smell.” His nose wrinkled up at the recollection. “In the very center of that demented apartment were thirteen pitiful little angels… clinging tightly to one perfectly beautiful Angel who was trying desperately to hold them all in her tiny arms. I only got a glimpse.” He focused on me then. “Before her eyes flashed like brake lights, and she was gone.”

“Yeah.” Tony laughed. “Bless their little hearts. All we heard that night was the story about the warm, beautiful lady Angel who killed the bad man just by pointing at him, and the giant glowing boy Angel who tried to make her leave.”

Tony took the seat beside Rankin as horrible memories and evil recollections twisted their faces.

I could hold my words in no longer. “Did you find all their mommies and daddies? Did you give them something to eat? Did you clean Billy up and put fresh clothes on him? Did they all get to sleep in their own beds and play with their own toys that night? Did the trembling, broken little girl that wicked man raped… did you find her parents as well? Was there someone to hold her and love her and protect her? Does she yet live?”

Both sets of painful tear-filled eyes were on me.

“Yeah, yeah, sure, Jenevier, sure. We took them to the hospital. One by one, their worried parents came in and scooped them up in their arms,” Tony whispered.

“Yeah, and every crying parent got the exact same story,yourstory,” Rankin added.

“Rankin here, he had a rough go of it for a while. He told everyone about your flaming eyes and he wondered why you weren’t at all those other hundreds of crime scenes we worked the next couple of years.”

I reached a trembling hand toward the silently weeping warrior, barely touching his sleeve. “I could only execute those whom God determined were past the point of repentance. But there are many Vanir. I was not alone. They are there, Rankin, always are they there. You just can’t always see them. That was my very first taste of unexplainable human evil.” I absently rubbed a tiny bit of his sleeve between my thumb and forefinger. “Vittorio tried to make me leave before you got there. I just couldn’t let go of her.” I was no longer focusing on the two men sitting there. My eyes were blurred with pooling tears. “I wanted to stay and hold her forever. I wanted to take her back with me, let her swim in the healing waters of our holy city.”

“Sarah. Her name’s Sarah Wilson. She’d been abducted from a school soccer field in Harrison, Missouri. She’s in high school now and doing quite well. She’s on the honor roll, told me she wanted to go to work for the FBI when she gets out of college.” Rankin spoke through the proud smile spreading warmly across his weary face.

“That’s wonderful. I cried many nights for those precious little babies. I prayed there was someone on this layer who would love them, help them heal.” I didn’t even bother wiping my many tears. They had started to flow from sorrow, yes. But now… they were tiny droplets of joy.

“So you see, Rankin, after reading her fantastic story, I just had to jump on a plane and bring this pretty young lady out here to meet you.” Tony slapped the younger man on the shoulder and leaned back in his chair.

“But how?” Rankin wondered aloud as he shook his head. “How in the world did somebody make up a damn story and it all came true?”

I sniffed, finally taking Tony’s proffered kerchief, wiping clean my face. “I’m not the product of someone’s imagination, Rankin. God formed me with His own majestic hands.” I looked up at the ceiling, drawing in a haggard breath, trying to fill my lungs and clear my mind. “The only thing I can think of is… there must be a seer or prophet living here on layer eight. We have many gifted seers in Ashgard. Someone here must be blessed as well.”

“I always thought psychics were full of horseshit, myself,” Rankin muttered.

“Eh, Rankin, we all have strange unexplainable dreams now and then. They gotta come from somewhere. And how do you explain mother’s intuition or the eerie connections between twins?” Tony said. “That don’t mean they’re psychic though. More than likely, some writer had a weird dream and wrote it all down. That’s all.”

“But, how could they have a dream about what we were actually living through back then?” Rankin shook his head. “That don’t make no sense.”

“Perhaps they…”

I was no longer listening to their strange little tête-à-tête. Their mumbling words were as background noise to my inner memoirs. I smiled. Joy lit a spark within me, and it grew. My lonely heart warmed at the sight of these two mundane, yet noble warriors, vainly trying to take divine power in stride. Trying desperately to explain away magic for their own sanity’s sake.

I couldn’t help myself. “Probably just those damn Pixies.”

Chapter 8

Jenevier

(ZHEN-ah-veer)

 

 

 

I sit here now on a black metal bench underneath an ancient shade tree. I’m not certain, but I think it’s called an oak. There’s a slight breeze rustling, stirring the colorful yellow, orange, and red leaves that mark the eighth layer’s autumn season.

I remained only a few short sweltering days in Marlow with Tony and Rankin. Together, they had remembered the names of all thirteen children abducted and abused in that filthy Detroit apartment.

It seems there was an intricate ring of child thieves working across this land. The wicked group transported their precious cargo to Detroit where they were photographed and sold, for various evil reasons, to bidders living across the entire eighth layer realm. Because of the thirteen rescued that night, twenty-two others were recovered and returned to their parents. Seven had tragically died due to horrible treatment, and four others were simply gone without a trace. It was those four that haunted Rankin. The loss of those four tiny souls forced him to leave the big city. He could not be thankful for the thirty-five little angels saved if there remained four still alive—crying themselves to sleep at night, begging for love but receiving only bruises in place of hugs. It was easy for me to see how a man could quite literally go mad if his mind remained on such things.

I have been sitting here for hours now. I arrived in Harrison around noon. The decision to wait has left me little else to do save write and continue to listen to my broken heart. The tears now soaking my feeble heart are what led my feet back up north, even though I detest these Northern temperatures. Perhaps… if I’m blessed, I may still have time to make it down to the Gulf Shores before the first snowflake catches me.

The school’s actually quite lovely. It looks historic in comparison to the nearby businesses and homes. The brick is a deep red chestnut, what you can see of it. Magical looking ivy has woven itself intricately up the ancient walls, leaving only a spot here and there to mark the paned windows. The sign at the main gate had read ‘private all-girls school’ in smaller letters underneath the much larger wording of the actual name. I will not record said name here for fear someone may yet be looking for Sarah.

Now that I’m here, I wonder how I’ll know which girl she could possibly be. There must be hundreds of them in that giant old building. Yet, even if I don’t see her or speak to her, my heart feels fuller just knowing she’s near, knowing she has healed.

My quest draws near its end. The bells are ringing and students are flooding out the main doors. The tall iron fence encompassing the lush property has a manned gate standing sentinel at both the entrance and the exit. I’m very proud of her loving parents for choosing this school. I feel much better now.

From this distance, I can’t tell the girls one from the other. Cars are slowly leaving the gates as laughing teenagers pile into vehicles with attentive parents. Yes, I feelmuchbetter now.

They drive slowly past, curious eyes marking my presence, heads turning, drinking in my form. This hadn’t crossed my mind, but I wonder if I’m making them nervous? A complete stranger, staring at their school, sitting on a bench, writing in a journal. I probably should have thought this through a little better. As I write to you now, Reader, the glowing brake lights of a car cast a faint glow upon this page. Yes, I should have thought this one through. I’d better be moving along. Never did I think I would miss being invisible.

When the passenger door swung open, a tall girl with long glistening brown hair stepped out. She didn’t move, only stared at me for a long moment. I stood, keeping my eyes lowered. With my back to her searching gaze, I made my retreat. Then I heard her precious voice.

“Angel? Angel, is that you?”

I slowly turned, intent upon seeing the eyes of the girl now speaking, when I heard the quick clicking noise of her hard soled shoes echoing off the pavement. When finally I faced her, she was already upon me, arms stretched wide, a brilliant smile sparkling in her eyes and spread gloriously across her lovely face. She was a good five inches taller than me. When she slammed into me, wrapping her eager arms around my tiny shoulders, it was all I could do to stay upright.

“Sarah?” I whispered.

The beautiful young lady pulled back from me, showing the tears streaming down her happy face.

“I always knew you’d come back. I’ve looked for your face in every crowd,” she said through her smile. “No one believed us, not truly. But I never forgot those golden curls and that deliciously encompassing scent. Never have I smelled anything like you, Angel, and never will I forget it. The comforting aroma of pure rose petals mixed with… with… heaven.” She squeezed me until it hurt.

Holding Sarah in my arms again was the most pure and glorious thing I’d felt since the time I had held her as a babe. She is so beautiful, inside and out. Her childhood horrors hadn’t turned her into a monster, an addict, or a drain on society. On the contrary. She had grown into an intelligent young woman, one with plans to enter the legal profession. My heart swells with the news. She is unwittingly choosing the path of the Vanir.

Sarah plans to become an expert criminal analyst with the Federal Bureau of Investigation here on layer eight. I laughed when she told me her mission was to hunt down and destroy each and every monster who dared to harm a child. When she shared her dreams with me, I held her and we both cried. In that very moment, I knew Sarah had become like my own blood, my own daughter. And she was following in her mother’s footsteps. I know she’ll be a mighty warrior for her people and I couldn’t possibly be any more proud ofmylittle Angel.

Sarah wasn’t the only one. I was lucky enough to be invited to her survivor’s reunion. Every year on the day of their rescue, all thirteen precious little babies come back together to share in their lives, in their successes, in their failures, but most of all in their bonded love for each other.

I was blessed beyond all hope simply being there with each of them. Every single one had grown up with a passionate internal mission to protect the weak. They are following many honorable paths. They confided dreams such as being pediatricians, teachers, law enforcement, psychiatrists, counselors… all thirteen will one day become angelic warriors for innocence and justice.

When I left Sarah, Billy, and all my other precious children that day, everything clicked and fell neatly into place.

Each person, no matter their layer, has an honorable and ethereal destiny. Some may lose their way and need a little angelic guidance. Some may be hindered by the demons inhabiting their realm, requiring assistance that only my brothers and sisters can provide. But no matter who, no matter when, and no matter where… each mortal being has a divine purpose.Mineis to ensure they are allowed to achievetheirs. Such is the will of God.

Now I understood, truly understood. I had single-handedly saved thirteen powerful Guardians who would help ensure the future of layer eight. And, I had also single-handedly destroyed the one and only person who could ensure the future of layer four.

My father had once told me, “If a single life holds no value, then none are of worth.”

Everyone matters, every… single… person… matters. It has nothing to do with what the eyes see. Varick taught me that. It’s not the wrapper. It’s the gift inside that’s precious. God placed a precious gift inside every soul. It’s their right and responsibility to use that gift to the best of their knowledge. And it was my right and responsibility to guarantee they got their chance to use it. It had always been about them, never about me. Yes, I protect them. But I cannot force them to use their talent. They alone carry that burden.

I laughed aloud when this simple little thought clearly popped in my head…The executioner is ruled by loving compassion.I am God’s compassionate executioner, not his vengeful assassin. My compassion for all humanity was to vanquish the evil hindering its progress. This, I realized, I had always known. But only now did I understand. Andthat’swhat makes the difference… the understanding.

I was no longer full of self-pity and doubt. If my new destiny was to be a Guardian here on layer eight, then I would be the best servant mankind had ever been blessed with. Now that I was visible to and pretty much accepted by the eighth layer people, it was time for me to use my talents. It was time for me tounwrapthe precious gift God had blessed me with. If those little children can overcome the atrocities of their youth, I have no excuse but to do the same. I may have saved their tiny little bodies all those years ago, buttheyhad saved my tiny little soul this very day.

“Every mortal is responsible for their own path, their own destiny.”

The moment those sweet words fell from my trembling lips, I felt a swelling pain rising inside me, threatening to burst me from within. I was trying to catch my breath, starting to think perhaps I was having one of those panic attack thingies people on this layer are always talking about. A flood started in my chest, exploding outward through the whole of my body.

Then I heard it, the pounding in my ears. It was the glorious sound of blood rushing within me once more. That little fluttering sliver of a soul was swelling, growing until I was certain this body could not contain the whole of it, couldn’t contain the whole ofme.

I fell upon my hands and knees and blissfully suffered through the pain of being recreated, of beingremade.

I relished in the tremendous ache, this all-encompassing pain of being reborn, for it… was… glorious.


Page 6

Chapter 9

Vindicus

(VIN-dah-kuss)

 

 

 

At first, I thought the voice was only in my mind. For one elated heartbeat, I thought the voice of my conscience had returned to me—my Varick. It was strong enough to pull me through the excruciating pain of my rebirth and back into reality.

Lying there upon the grass, just outside the home in which I had been invited to share in that wondrous, revelation-inspiring reunion, I realized two things. 1) Even though I knew my whole soul had been returned to me, I realized I was no longer visible to my all-grown-up and wonderful children. They were leaving, one by one, and not a single pair of eyes or ears took notice of my screams of pain or my thrashing about upon the ground. And 2) I realized the voice wasn’t coming from inside my head, but from the iridescent creature leaning against the only tree in that little suburban yard.

“Well, it took you long enough.”

The voice was unfamiliar, but the woman was unmistakable. She was Vanir.

“Do you have any idea how many years you’ve been in limbo?”

“N-no, I ha-have no idea.”

“Four. Four years of roaming this layer, smelling of nothing but doubt and self-pity. And suicide? Did you truly believe you could escape your punishment through death?”

I couldn’t utter a single word.

Her haughty berating continued. “You had just better be glad you didn’t succeed in your phenomenal idiocy. Believe me. You don’t even want to know what awaits you if you had. All right, get upnow.There’s much to do.”

“Wh-who are you?”

“Well I guess you could say I’m the executioner’s Guardian Angel.” Her words were heavy with disdain. “At least, that’s what I’ve had to resort to these last few years. Lady, you are one serious hard case, you know that? I have seen some messed up Angels in my time, butnothingcompared to you.”

“I’m not an Angel,” I whispered.

“That’s right, and neither am I. So get up,Princess. Dust off your wings and start acting like you have a little sense from here on out. My babysitting days are over. It’s time you took care of yourself for a change.” The ethereal woman turned to go.

I tried to catch her. Alas, she was gone.

“Come on already!” She materialized before me, grabbing my arm, jerking me through the clouds.

Ugh, I hate that part. I’m not sure what the Vanir actually call these transporting clouds. I have only ever heard them called clouds. But the people on layer eight would more than likely call them a wormhole. The thought made me giggle, despite my nausea.

Hehe, wormhole… full of Angels, no worms in sight.

We popped out of the sky and softly landed in Vanahirdem. At least, Ithoughtit was Vanahirdem.

The lovely lady Vanir released my arm the moment my feet touched the ground.

She walked away, yelling over her statuesque shoulder, “Welcome to Vandermil. Make yourself at home. Blah, blah, blah, whatever.”

If it were possible for a city to have a twin, then Vandermil was definitely the long lost sister Vanahirdem never knew she had. The domed houses, the crystal gate, the spiraling centralized temple—all identical to my long-lost home.

“Well now. What do we have here?” The enticingly warm bass voice rumbled through my essence. “Mmm, an enchantingly fragrant fear, laced about with just a pinch of delicious… what is that… anger?”

The deep guttural laugh made my hair feel like it stood up on its end, yet it ripped my heart wide open, leaving a tender, gaping wound. My mind was immediately flooded with images of my first encounter with Vareilious. He had used almost the same words, had almost the same laugh, and definitely owned a voice as deep and lulling as this one. My heart crumbled inside me.

I took a deep breath, stilling my nerves, commanding my will. “Tell me not. Let me guess. You are the Gate Guardian and enforcer here.” I spoke without turning to see the glorious giant I knew was standing right behind me.

“That is correct, little lady. Perhaps we’ve met… in your most erotic of dreams.”

I swear I literallyheardhis tongue sliding across his razor sharp teeth.

“No, I cannot say we have. I simply know you by your crass comments and inappropriate behavior. Those are two traits I find you mustallshare.”

The guttural laugh caught me off guard for an instant. It was so much likehis. I regained my composure and headed into the heart of another enchanting city.

If you’ve been with me from the beginning, Reader, then you know me well. And you must also know that my dear friend, Fate, wasn’t going to let me out of this situation quite so easily.

I had taken only two steps when my face slammed into a perfectly chiseled chest. I, of course, fell backwards, landing on my clumsy bottom. Now I had no choice. I would be forced to look at the sentinel towering over me. Sighing loudly, I resigned myself to events I knew I could not escape.

Dusting tiny pebbles off my palms, I stood up to do the same to my derrière, talking all the while. “So be it. Let’s go ahead and get this all out of the way. Shall we?” I cleared my throat. “Yes, you are gorgeous beyond all reason, masterfully sculpted perfection. You will want, and need, to flirt and tease while I will reluctantly oblige you with playful counter banter. Eventually, we’ll laugh, become great friends, fight side-by-side, and be as close as blood-borne kin—”

After brushing the dirt from my clothing, I finally looked up to see my new brother Vanir standing before me. I froze.

In place of the flowing silver hair of my Vanahirdem family, this warrior had tons of shoulder length, wavy azure locks. I tease you not, this warrior boastedbluehair.

I’ll try my best to explain the mesmerizing hair of the heavenly Vanir. They don’t have what I like to callpeople hair. When I say it is flowing silver, I literally mean flowing silver. Each individual strand is pure precious silver growing out of their ethereal heads. When I say flowing, I mean just like my hair, and probably yours, too. It blows with the wind, gets in their face, and covers their eyes the exact same way. Yet their hair is cool to the touch, like metal. And light as air, likepeople hair. This new warrior’s epic mane boasted all these same characteristics, only the color was different. Did I mention it wasblue?

There he stood, perfection personified, with both mighty hands resting upon the hilt of his sheathed sword. One haughty eyebrow cocked up as if he were thinking…“What in the world is she talking about?”And, of course, I was blabbering away with all my naturalsmoothnessuntil my first glimpse of him. Then I lost my tongue and began to stutter.

It went something like this… “Fighting side-by-side, close as blood-borne kin, bl-bl-bl—”

“I believe the word you are so eloquently trying to spit out isblue.” His tone was the epitome of arrogance. “And your hair is ye-ye-ye-yellow.”

“Y-y-yes, it is,” I choked out.

“Yes, I know it is. I’m looking right at it. And unlike you, my mouth actually works.”

I couldn’t quit staring at his still raised eyebrow. His still raisedblueeyebrow. And those wings, those massive, glistening wings were so black they shone blue in the light, perfectly accenting his gorgeous locks.

“Very well then. This is generally the part wherenormalpeople would exchange names and greetings. Do you think you can manage it?”

I could only slightly nod my head. I believe my mouth was hanging open as well. The breathtaking giant extended me his enormous hand, firmly clasping my forearm, and I his. Such was the greeting of my people.

“Hello, tiny maiden. My name is Vindicus,” he announced proudly.

Finally, I found my tongue and tried to act as normal as possible. It was too late.

“Very nice to meet you, Vindicus. My name is Jenevier Embarr.” I couldn’t help but smile. He entranced me.

A velvety voice came from someonebehindthe mesmerizing statue I was blatantly gawking at. “I have been forced to wait a terribly long time for you, Milady. Please, will you not join me?”

I started to look around the ethereal, sapphire-haired Guardian, trying to get a glimpse of the man who was now addressing me, when Vindicus grabbed the back of my neck, lifting me up on my tiptoes.

His sweet breath was hot against my tingling skin. “This is so that I may have your honored well-being in the foremost of my mind, Maiden.” His smirk was both sensual and condescending. “I must taste your sweet fear. I must delight in rolling your delicious scent over my tongue, letting your enchantment remain always upon my lips.”

Seriously, I nearly swooned. Vindicus’s words were as hypnotizing as they were erotic. This Guardian oozed sexuality, used it as a weapon, a lusciously lethal weapon. I felt his lips part into a smile against my chest. A smile caused more from gloating than from desire. The enormous sentinel licked me from my breastbone to the bottom of my jaw line.

Again, he whispered his lily-scented words into my ringing ear. “Ahh, Maiden. Never have I tasted fear as sweet and desirable as yours. Mmm, this is going to become extremely interesting… for both of us.”

Vindicus lowered me back to my heels. I swayed upon unsteady legs, involuntarily shaking all over, as a kitten fresh out of the bath.

“I-I believe I’ve heard that som-somewhere before.”

The tip of his nose brushed my cheek. “Perhaps you can try working on that little speech problem you seem to have before next we meet. Whattaya say, Maiden? Hmm? Think you can manage it?”

His deep guttural laugh reverberated in my head as he casually walked off, not once glancing back.

Vindicus, my beautiful blue-haired new Guardian brother, left me standing there. I watched him go. I couldn’t help myself. I never thought I would ever meet another man who could rival my old friend Vareilious in sarcasm, smirks, and cockiness. Vindicusdefinitelycould. Perhaps he was worse, if such a thing were even possible. It made me smile.

This place may just turn out to be way too much fun. I shall have to watch myself around that one. He’s dangerous… I like it.

The wicked little thought made me giggle, out loud, no less. Then I heard the slightly uncomfortable noise of someone clearing their throat.

Aww, jeez. I forgot about him. I’m such an idiot, so easily distracted.

Blushing, I turned back to the man who had addressed me earlier, the one who just caught me staring dreamily at the blue Guardian’s backside.

I found myself, red-faced, standing in front of a man that human words will be hard-pressed to describe. Yet, I will try.

Chapter 10

Vybius

(VYE-bee-us)

 

 

 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Every layer has a saying similar to this one. If you’ve read my story, you may share my opinions on beauty and you may not. Yet the man standing before me now, his ethereal beauty transcends description. I know not from which layer you hail, Reader, but never have I seen a creature such as this man.

I can only adequately describe the Vanir as a race of living statues. I mean they are sculpted, perfect beauty. But not the kind of beauty which would necessarily make one thinklewd thoughts, per se. Not just by looking at them. Their beauty is regal, awe-inspiring. Beholding one from the Guardian race is more like looking at a famous painting, a pristine work of art, a rare jewel. Basically, they were… heavenly, heavenly beauty.

Not this man before me now. He is definitely, undeniably… sexy. I don’t believe I’ve ever said that before, Reader—that I thought someone was sexy. Perhaps I called Alzeen sexy. I can’t remember. I know I thought it, whether I said it aloud or not. Besides, I have always loved what it was people carried within them, on the inside. I love the soul, not necessarily the body. I can obviously tell if a being’swrapperis physically attractive or not. Yet that’s never been why I loved them, never been why they captured a piece of my heart.

But this man… ooohthisman, he made my mouth water. Seriously, I felt dirty inside just looking at him. My explicit carnal thoughts surprised me. Never have I behaved thusly. I didn’t even realize such things were in my mind. But they were, oh boy, were they ever.

“Welcome, Vashti. The wait has been long, but it was worth every moment. You are a thousand times lovelier in person than you were in my dreams. Vandermil is honored by your presence.Iam honored by your presence.”

The regal Vanir bowed low to the ground with a graceful sweep of his arms. And there he remained, prostrate before me.

Now, I speak this only to you, Reader. I have lived very nearly as a hermit upon layer eight for over four years, as I’ve been told. And my natural speech is rusty from lack of conversation and tainted by the eighth layer’s influence. No longer did I carry the melodious tones of Ashgard or the angelic accent of the Vanir. So, what did I do? Yet again, I stuttered.

“I-I’m n-not Vashti.”

He slowly raised his head, those entrancing eyes fixed firmly upon me. I felt naked before him. I even had to stop my arms from instinctively moving to cover myself.

“Apologies,” he said.

“No, no… I only meant, I am no longer Vashti.”

His strange, piercing eyes remained fixed on me. They were as magical magnets. I couldn’t look away from them.

“I’m only Jenevier now. I’m no longer blessed with my mask.”

His expression was almost comical. He tilted his head to the side and scrunched his eyebrows together, appearing deep in thought. “Truly?”

I almost giggled, but forced myself to stop at a smile. “Yes, sir, truly. I am sorry to disappoint you. Alas, I have proven myself unworthy of such heavenly grace.”

I tried real hard to look away from him, avert my eyes in any other direction, seriously. It simply wasn’t possible.

He laughed. “Truly? Unworthy of grace? Can there be such a thing?”

“Yes, Milord. I was witnessed, judged, and executed for my sins.”

Hard as I may try, I honestly could not stop my mouth from just blurting out every single word that popped in my head. If I thought it, I spoke it. It was infuriatingly maddening, and completely uncontrollable.

“Executed?” He half laughed when he said the word.

“Yes, Milord, by God’s own hand.”

Then, he laughed for real. I wanted to be offended, but his laugh was like the warm sun on a cool day. It enveloped me, caressed me, it held me. I felt, for lack of a better word, cherished.

“Come, my child. There is much we need to discuss.”

His smile was as warm as his laugh and almost as mesmerizing as those beautiful amethyst eyes. When he approached me, gently placing his arm around my shoulders, leading me into the city proper, I realized he was almost the size of a normal man. He was obviously Vanir, yet diminutive by comparison. He was in no way small—perhaps six foot four or five—yet much shorter than all other Vanir I’ve been privileged to meet. His frame was smaller as well. This enticing Angel could have easily passed for a man. Well, except for his glowing skin, piercing purple eyes, bright silver pupils, and that gorgeous silver hair falling down to brush the backs of his strong thighs. When that thought crossed my mind, an involuntary chuckle escaped. I quickly clamped my hand over my disrespectful mouth.

He stopped walking, took me by my shoulders, and turned me to face him proper. I felt like I’d been caught with my hand in the proverbial cookie jar.

His magical eyes held my gaze—simply would not let me look away. Believe me. I tried.

“Tell me what you were thinking just now.”

“Nothing important. I did not mean to offend you.”

“You, Jenevier, could only ever offend me by withholding the truth. Now, tell me. What were you thinking?”

His smile was dazzling and his silver pupils grew to nearly drown out the deep amethyst iris.

Someone, I know not whom, passed by us, drawing his attention for a fraction of a second. But it was long enough to break the spell he’d cast over me. He still held fast to my shoulders, but I managed to tear my gaze away long enough to take in his angelic form.

His robe only covered half his chest as it hung from but one sinewy shoulder. The enticing ripples and indentations of his abdomen proved to accentuate his ribcage, effortlessly pulling my eyes down to that glorious chiseled V shape. It started just above his hip bone and ran down to hide beneath the brass studded belt loosely clasped just below his narrow waist. Ah, that lovely V was always my undoing, my kryptonite. I giggled inside upon recalling the sight of Superman melting in front of that oddly glowing stone.Perhaps I watched too much television during my exile... Nah.Then, I snickered aloud.

I struggled to force my eyes back up to meet his curious stare. My visual exploration was completely improper, beyond intrusive. I was almost ashamed of my thoughts concerning this elegant man. Well, almost.

When my gaze once more found his charming face, I was met with a knowing smirk. Those spellbinding eyes caught me again.

“Jenevier, lovely Angel, speak to me your every thought. Withhold nothing, little one.”

I tried, unsuccessfully, to hold still my loosened tongue. “I was thinking how enchanting you are. I’ve never seen anyone quite like you before. You are obviously Vanir, yet, not like the VanirIknow. Your look alone has produced wicked thoughts within me. I continually feel as if I need to apologize to you for my mental violations concerning your being.”

Oh god, I can’t believe I just said that.

He pressed his lips together like he was desperately trying to hold in his laughter. “Is that all? Were your thoughts on admiration alone? Nothing else troubles you?”

“You mean, mytypeof admiration doesn’t offend you?”

“Not at all.” He gave my shoulders a tiny squeeze. “How could any man take offense to being admired by a creature as rare as you? I am flattered and humbled, Milady. Now, were dark desires and inappropriate admiration your only thoughts?” He winked, playfully.

“No, that wasn’t all,” I admitted. “I was also thinking how you were made more as a man, and how I cannot turn away from your beautiful eyes… even when I try. They look as rare gemstones. Not to mention the fact I cannot hold my tongue when you look at me. My mind keeps screaming at me to stop blathering away like a mindless fool. But my mouth just opens right up… and everything falls out of its own accord.”

He didn’t speak, only smiled.

I couldn’t quit talking. “Your smile is different as well. It’s warm and safe, I believe. But on top of all your immaculate beauty, I love your hair the most.” Without asking or even thinking, I reached out, touching the ethereal strands, running my fingers through the silken length. “It feels exactly as I thought it would. The Vanir in Vanahirdem have silver hair just like this. Yet yours, the color here in front, the enchanting strands framing your perfect face…” I paused a moment, completely entranced. “These rare locks look like a lovely amethyst, my absolute favorite color. It proves only to make the purple in your eyes all the more breathtaking.” I mindlessly fingered the luxurious locks, my thoughts drifted. “Varick has hair like this. Except his is gold where yours is purple, yet it feels the same. I loved his crowning angelic glory. I would spend hours brushing and braiding it. He looked so regal, ever was he regal. That glorious man always managed to take my breath away. He didn’t even have to try. Never have I been loved as Varick loved me. I didn’t deserve it. I proved the truth of that in the end, I suppose.”

For a brief moment, I wondered why his smile had faded and a crease now furrowed his brow. Then, he tenderly wiped the tears from my cheeks. Tears I didn’t even realize were streaming, unabated, down my face.

“That’s enough now.” He placed a gentle finger to my lips. “Shhh, please, do not go on. You are the most honest being I have ever met. Yet, the unfathomable pain is so clear in your eyes, I cannot bear it.”

“Apologies, I didn’t mean to—”

“Shhh, no more words today. I will see you to your room. There, you may rest and wash away those most sorrowful memories. No one will bother you and I will attend to your every need myself.”

“No, please. Don’t put yourself out for someone such as me.”

“Never repeat such nonsense within my hearing.” He moved his face closer to mine. “You are my most honored of guests and I will not rest until you are comforted.”

We made our way to one of the familiar dome-shaped dwellings. My heart ached for home.

He reached for the crystal knob. “Jenevier, welcome to my humble abode.”


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Chapter 11

Jenevier

(ZHEN-ah-veer)

 

 

 

I numbly entered the open door, barely managing to hold myself together long enough to hear the click of the closing latch. Then I stopped trying.

Wretched, debilitating grief racked my whole body. I fell to my knees.

I’d only just accepted my new life—my new destiny upon layer eight—simply to be winged away to another realm. I would never get to hug Sarah again. I would never get to stand up and cheer at her graduation. Never be able to tell her how beautiful she looked on her wedding day, or how proud I was of her when she became a warrior for the FBI. I wanted to hold her babies and grandbabies and great-grandbabies. As it was, I didn’t even get to say goodbye.

Now, my new home… well, it was like a giant slap in the face. Deserved? Probably. Expected? Definitely not. How am I going to be able to walk these streets, commune with these people, live amongst them daily, when every single thing about this place reminds me of home? My home, the home I was banned from. The only place I ever wanted to see again, the only city where my heart and soul truly lived. It was too awful.

I felt like someone had run up to me, smiling brightly, and announced…You have just won your very own paradise! You will find it is fully stocked with all your favorite foods, there are numerous homes for all your favorite people, and everyone you love is but a breath away. You’ve suffered long enough. Congratulations! Enjoy your just reward!Then, they handed me a mere picture of said reward and politely walked away. Hopes and dreams lifted to the highest heavens—rug jerked from under my feet. Gut-wrenching and spirit-shattering. Alas, that would have been so much easier to accept than what was actually happening. This ethereal city was nothing more than a vicious copy, a miserable teasing replica of all my fondest dreams.

Why does this place and why do these people have to be so much like my lost life? Did someone look into my mind and build this world? Has the last four years been only a waiting game? Waiting until this wretched place was ready, waiting until the cruelest joke imaginable was put together. Did I simply roam about the eighth layer, invisible, wishing for my true end… until my own personal hell was ready to swing wide its doors, allowing entrance only to the pathetically shattered, horribly fallen, Death Angel of God.

I felt bile rising up in the back of my throat.

The man who had graciously welcomed me into his home was a perfectly blended facsimile of my absent love. Everything about him was a wickedly brewed concoction of Varick and Alzeen. His lovely hair was as Varick’s but highlighted with my favorite color, purple. His enchanting eyes were dual colored, as was Alzeen’s, and were as magical as were Varick’s. His comfortable stature and knee-weakening physique caused the same reaction within me as Alzeen’salwayswould. His tender response to my pain and emphatic need for my joy and comfort, everything was there. Some twisted puppet master snuck into my sleeping mind and fiendishly created a physical being to embody everything I held dear about my lost love, my lost husband. Some devil had taken everything I found desirous, everything I treasured the most, and covered him inmypreferred wrapping. He was the most gloriously evil gift imaginable, deliciously torturous. I would definitely have to steer clear of this man, always.

So consuming were my sobs, if anyone were listening, they would’ve been hard-pressed to make out a single word. “Varick, my love, I want to return home. I only ever wanted to be your Anicee. I am so sorry. I am so dreadfully sorry. Forgive me for loving Vareilious too much, forgive me for the secret confession you never even heard. I was too scared to give my mundane heart to one as glorious as you. Why did you love me so much? Why would you trust your forever to one such as me? I know I don’t deserve you, yet… I want nothing else in this universe. Only you, Varick… only my Alzeen.”

I curled up there on the floor of my borrowed room and cried. I don’t know how long I lay there. I believe I slept. I didn’t hear the door open, nor did I feel his gentle hands try to rouse me. Yet I briefly pulled my mind together when I heard that tender, comforting voice in my ear.

“Jenevier… Jenevier, can you hear me? Please wake and take some food. You must keep up your strength. Let me help you. Please.”

I heard his voice, yes, but it seemed so far away. Someone carried me to the giant bed. Two whole days passed before I heard his voice once more.

“What ails you, lovely lady? Did you finally give up? Has your sanity escaped to some dark place I cannot follow?” he whispered. “Have those worthless Guardians of yours finally broken you completely? Are you beyond repair, little sister?” I felt strong arms wrap about me, pulling me back against his warm chest. His lips were in my hair, the heat from his breath tickling my scalp. “If you will only let me, I can heal you. I will never let harm come to you, tiny Angel. I will keep you forever at my side, forever in my arms. Can you hear me? Can you feel my heart pounding against your fragile back? I wish you knew me, wish you realized in whose arms you now lay. If you only knew the truth of it, little one, you would see. You would know then; you would realize there is not a creature in existence who could remove you from my embrace. Let me be your constant, Angel. Let me gift you with a glorious forever. Open your eyes, Jenevier, accept your fate. Wake now and realize yourtruedestiny.”

“Vybius?” A woman’s voice invaded my lovely dream, calling out a name I had never heard before.

“Yes, Vydia, what is it?”

“Will you not come now and eat? You’ve been sitting there talking to her for days. You must eat something before the council meeting.”

“I will be fine, Vydia.”

I heard the exasperated sigh that followed his words.

“At least, take some tea. I will run your bath and get your council robes ready. Please, leave this room. She is no longer here. It’s time to let her go.”

“I will not leave her, not as long as she still draws breath. Guardians did this to her, Vydia. The Vanir are responsible for this child’s fragile mind. Humans are not Vanir. Human girls are not celestial warriors. It should be counted as sin to treat them thusly.”

“But, Vybius, the sin washers. No Guardian forced her hand in that murder. She alone tore out the heart of—”

“Vydia, leave me.” He thankfully cut off her painful words. “I do not wish to quarrel with you and I don’t have the patience right now to show you how badly you err.”

I heard the door softly close and I felt the cool towel placed gently on my head. I tried to remember where I was. The realization of that memory pulled fresh tears to the backs of my eyes.

“I didn’t know your name. It is quite lovely. Vybius… I like it.”

When I finally forced my lids open, those amethyst eyes were sparkling and a warming smile welcomed me.

“There you are, Milady. I have missed you, oh, how I’ve missed you. Where did you go?”

“Nowhere… I know not… it was just… darkness.”

“Then why did you come back?” He was brushing sweat-drenched curls from my forehead. “I feared you had entered the abyss and could not return. I feared you would lose your way.”

“Your voice… your words… they lulled my heart. Then… you were angry. I was worried about you.” I tried to focus on producing a coherent thought. “I’m not certain as to why, but I was. It truly isn’t fair you know, making me fret over you so soon after our first meeting.”

He laughed softly, and that alone made me feel better. It helped center me.

“Can you sit up?”

When I managed to get up on my elbows, I felt lightheaded. Vybius helped me the rest of the way and placed a fragrant cup of warm tea in my shaky hands. It was delicious. His gentle touch was so soothing—slowly rubbing tiny circles across my back, mindlessly comforting me. It was such a tender, caring thing to do. It only served to make me feel worse. I tried to force my mind to ignore my eyes, to look at this man without noticing his all-too-perfect wrapping. It was no use. This enchanting man’s ideal packaging also held an invaluable gem within. I was certain of it. At least, that’s what I convinced myself.

Ugh, I have to think on other things. I will never fall for this man. I swear it by all I know. He is NOT Alzeen. He is NOT Varick. If I must, I will be cruel to him for even being allowed to own their similarities.I determined to constantly convince my addled mind of the truth.He is my new brother… he is only a brother… a warrior brother, not my lost lover.

The backs of his fingers brushed gently against my cheek. “Forgive me for not giving you my name when first we met. I was so excited I must have forgotten.”

And then, he blushed. He was so cute when he blushed…Dammit.

“Gratitude for saying it’s beautiful,” he whispered.

My eyes narrowed. “Why were you excited?”

I took another long drink of the wonderful tea. I had waitedyearsto taste tea such as this. I immediately wanted more.

“Excuse me?”

“You said you were so excited you forgot to mention your name. What were you so excited about?”

He seemed shocked by my question. Those magical eyes studied my expression intently. “Why, about meeting you, of course.” He said it just as plain and matter-of-fact as you could possibly imagine.

This is where I gracefully choked on my tea. No matter how long I lived around these incredible warriors, their raw honesty still stunned me.

“Are you well?”

“Yes. Apologies. You caught me a little off guard.” A couple more coughs and my lungs were again clear. “Tell me. How is it you knew of me? How did you even know I was coming? And why in the world wouldIbe anything worth getting excited about?”

He chuckled and tried to gently untangle some of my curls. “You jest, no?”

“No. I don’t feel much like joking around anymore.” Vareilious’s smirking face popped into my mind. “The thrill of it has left me.”

“Truly?”

“Truly. When I lost my dear friend… I lost my taste for it.”

“I see.” His voice dropped to barely a whisper. “Apologies, Milady. I did not mean to cause you grief.”

“Please, Vybius, please stop apologizing to me. Just promise me you’ll never stop laughing and smiling.” I closed my eyes as I tilted my head from side to side, popping the bones in my weary neck. “Yours is the only warmth I have known for many years now.” I finished off the last of my delicious tea and slowly filled my lungs with the pristine air of Vandermil. “Ahh… May I have some more of your magical tea?”

He didn’t answer. I turned to hand him my empty cup. The silver in his eyes was flashing or glowing or pulsing or something. I had never seen anything like it before. Well, except, Vashti’s rubies could flash. But this was different. He didn’t seem to be lookingatme, and he gave no indication he’d even heard me speak. I was terribly curious. It was truly an odd thing to behold.

“Are you a seer?” I turned full to face him. “Vareen would get that same far-off look in her eyes when she was witnessing a vision. I mean, her eyes didn’t flash or anything.”

He remained as he was, silent.

“Are you having a vision?”

Vybius still didn’t answer, but the silver pulsing began to slow. Eventually, he focused on my questioning face, seemingly alarmed to find me watching him so intently. He blushed, again.

Jeez. Why does he have to keep doing that? It’s like he’s trying to tempt me.

He nervously cleared his throat. “Apologies. Did you say something?”

“Are you well, Vybius? Your hands tremble. You seem as if you’re ready to jump out of your skin at the slightest bump.”

I reached for him, tenderly placing my hands over his. I was right. He jumped clean off the bed.

“Whoa, slow down there, Angel.” I couldn’t help the chuckle mixed in with my words. “I only wished to comfort you. Please do not interpret my actions as forward. I understand quite well. Some people don’t like to be touched. I get it. Apologies. I will not err so again,” I promised. “But you seem just about ready to burst.”

“No, no, please don’t take it that way. My mind was elsewhere. I was lost in my own head. I love to touch you, Jenevier.” A gentle smile turned up the corners of his mouth. “Your skin is so soft. You look so delicate, so fragile. It’s merely a guise though; the lean muscles of your arms and legs are deceptively hard.” His smile grew wider. “I have lain with you for two full days, Milady, doing nothingbuttouching you.”

“Excuseme?” I admit to letting the horror show plainly on my face.

He quickly held up his hands, waving them frantically. “No, no. It wasn’t likethat.” He blushed again. “I only meant I had stayed by your side every moment since I walked in and found you curled-up on the floor. I laid you on the bed and tended to you.”

I arched one eyebrow, tilting my head to the side. I could only stare at this angelic creature—stumbling over his strangely apologetic words.


Page 8

“No, Milady, I didn’t tend to you likethat.” The blush on his cheeks was now crimson, quickly spreading to cover the whole of his face. “I only meant… I was only trying to… Please, stop looking at me like that.”

He almost pouted, his bottom lip protruding slightly.Sooo cute!

His stammering tickled me. I couldn’t help a small laugh. A Vanir, fumbling his words and fidgeting his hands. I never thought I’d live to see the dayIwas the one doing the teasing around these majestic people.

“Calm yourself, Vybius. I was only playing. It was but jest. I must admit. I’m not accustomed to your kind being so gullible. I took full advantage of your embarrassment because I simply could not help myself. Apologies, Brother. I just never thought I’d get the chance.”

He just stood there, frozen, staring blankly at me. I crawled across the giant bed and took his hand, coaxing him to sit back down and relax. That lovely purple Guardian let me pull him down beside me once again. I couldn’t help but touch those enchanting amethyst strands perfectly surrounding his angelic face. They beckoned me, always.

“May I?”

Of course, I hadn’t waited politely for a reply. My hands were in his hair before my words had finished.

He closed those enchanting eyes and only smiled. I took that as ayes.

“I don’t want to do this wrong,” he whispered. “I want you toknowme, Jenevier, truly know me before…” He paused, thinking upon his words. “How can I say this?” His eyes remained closed. “I have waited for you for so long. Your lovely smile remains in my thoughts even when I sleep. I already knoweverythingabout you, Milady. Now, I want to show you whoIam, who Icanbe… for you. I need you to understand how I can help you, how I’mmeantto help you. But, I must be careful. I don’t want to harm you the way Va—” He stopped. His eyes opened wide, regret evident in those magical silver windows.

Like a shot through my heart, my anger flared. “The waywho? The way Varick did? Or do you speak about Vareilious? Perhaps you were going to say I was also harmed by Vareen or Valadrog or Vinika or Vittorio—”

“Well, were you not?” he interrupted.

I tried, feebly, to rein in my temper. “No, Vybius. Their intent was never to harm me.” My words were forced through gritted teeth. “I brought harm upon myself. Actually, that happened to be theonething they didn’t have to help me with.”

“I disagree,” he whispered.

“Well, do not,” I snapped.

Silence hung in the air between us.

This is perfect. Hate him just enough so that you do not desire him. Do not open your heart to this man. Your pathetic heart is weak and foolish. This you know, Jenevier. This you have always known. And if you cannot hate him, focus only on the things you don’t like about him. Repeat them over and over in your head. Concentrate on his faults, hate will grow on its own.

Alas, all in all, I was just too weary to fight. This poor man had been nothing but kind to me. I knew I was acting like a child. Vareilious would have called my actions a temper tantrum. He would have scolded me for acting like such a baby. I took a deep breath, sighing inside.

This man cannot help how he looks or how he was created any more than I can. I, of all people, should realize how it feels to be judged by something you had absolutely no control over whatsoever, like looks or hair or skin or smile. Why must I always overact? When will I ever grow up and stop being so ridiculous? Besides, who am I kidding? He has no faults. He is perfect. Ugh, I hate him.

I decided to try and mend the fence I had only just broken. “Tell me what you were doing, Vybius, when your eyes were flashing.”

“I was reading your soul,” he said casually.

“Oh, is that all?”

So much forthat. My control was once again gone, my juvenile temper returned. Vybius couldn’t help but take note of the intense sarcasm dripping off my words.

“You’re upset? Offended?”

“Umm,yes. I cannot even begin to imagine anything anymoreinvasive and violating as reading one’s very soul, especially without permission.”

“Apologies. That’s what I do.” His answer was flat, dry.

“What’s what you do? You read peoplessouls?” My voice was growing ever louder. “That’s what you do? As in, your job? Your talent? Your gift?”

“That’s what most of us do here. Please, do not feel violated. It was never intended as such. And I would also like to ask for you to please refrain from questioning me further untilafterI’ve properly taught you our ways, and your new part in them.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “This is exactly what I meant before when I said I did not wish to harm you, didn’t wish to do this wrong. I have been gifted, or perhaps cursed, with a glimpse of your mind during your training in Vanahirdem. I will not make those same mistakes, Milady. I would never harm you so.”

“Wait… So I’m here to be trained? Is that what you’re saying?” I let out an exhausted sigh. “What for this time? What will my new cursed role be amongst you fair people? Am I to be another pariah, another outcast living amongst the perfect?” I narrowed my eyes, set my jaw, holding my mouth in a hard line. “I will not lie to you, Vybius, and tell you this pleases me in the least.”

“I know, you cannot lie. I saw that as well.” He smiled.

Ugh, I swear I hate him. Or… I soon shall.

Chapter 12

Vybius

(VYE-bee-us)

 

 

 

It had beendayssince I’d gotten to enjoy a really good soak. I’d relaxed in the blissful warmth for nearly an hour. So, I wasn’t shocked when Vybius opened the door, begging permission to enter and speak.

“Do you mind? We have much to discuss, Milady.”

I rolled my head to the side, looking at the gentle man bowing his way into the room. “Of course not, Vybius. Youtendedto me for days and then read what’s left of my soul. I’m pretty sure my bare flesh won’t even come close to shocking you.”

I knew I was being childish, but it was my only current form of defense. At least, that was how I was justifying it to myself, and also how I was trying to rationalize away the coldness I was heaping upon the only person who had shown me warmth. I am sooo ridiculous.

“I begged your forgiveness. Did I not?” His voice sounded so small.

“Yes, you did.” I sighed. “Apologies. Come in and have a seat. I can talk and soak at the same time.”

I motioned toward the chair and smiled. Well, I sort of smiled. My heart wasn’t truly in it.

“Upon your waking, I was prepared to answer the many questions you must have. Why do you tarry?”

I cocked one eyebrow, yet chose not to meet his puzzled gaze. “Oh really? I thought you just asked me torefrainfrom questioning you?”

“Only refrain from questioning me personally, Jenevier. I don’t want to rush through our formalities. They are needed and necessary, if we wish to have a lasting bond.” He looked at me almost apologetically, with a bit of sadness in his lovely eyes. “I want that more than anything, Jenevier… a lasting bond with you. I have stirred from my slumber countless mornings with the dream of our sweet friendship still playing through my mind.” He suddenly seemed to remember himself and hastily cleared his throat with a nervous cough. “No, I meant, umm… Why haven’t you questioned me about Vandermil, or why you’re here, or what your purpose is? Why haven’t your questions been aboutthosethings? Are you not curious?”

“I will admit to you now, Vybius. I did not learn all I could have, nor did I learn all that I should have, during my laborious training in Vanahirdem. Yet, there was one lesson I received far too often. And it was that asking questions only leads to pain. I am weary now, Vybius. Weary of heart, weary of mind, weary of absent soul.”

He didn’t speak.

“To answer you plainly, I ask not because… I fear what your answers will be. I have roamed the whole of layer eight foryearsand had only just found the very first ray of happiness… when I was instantly snatched from that place. The same as when real happiness found me on Ashgard—the moment I met Alastyn, my world ended. And again, in Vanahirdem, when I finally accepted Varick’s manacle, my life ended. Even in Merodach’s made up world, as soon as I let Dante in my heart… poof, it was all over. So, I will look no further for answers of the heart. It appears my fate wasn’t toneverknow love, peace, and happiness. On the contrary, Brother. I have been blessed with them all, and in abundance, no less. No, my Fate is a far crueler mistress. My Fate is toknowthem, truly know them, only to have them torn from me, over and over and over again. No, not any more. Now, I choose to live absent such things for fear of losing them… along with what little remains ofmeas well.”

“What’s there left to say, tiny warrior? You have chosen to close your eyes to spare your heart.”

“No, Vybius. I have chosen to close my heart to spare my mind. I fear I will soon be absent clear thought if I allow entrance to even one more thing, to even one more person. After all, I’m long dead and wish now only for the peace that should accompany it.”

“If you were truly dead, you wouldn’t behere. Vindicus would have escorted you to the Otherworld upon your arrival. The fact that hetastedyou instead, should prove beyond a shadow of a doubt. You yet live, Milady.”

“How so? What’s your reasoning? A warrior licked me. So what? That same thing has happened hundreds of times before. Never has it been consideredproof of life.”

“Perhaps not.” He laughed softly. “Well, perhaps not before. Vindicus is a very different kind of warrior, tiny Angel. You have never met one such as him. No matter who or what he reminds you of, trust me… you couldn’t be farther from the truth. Alas, he chose you… of his own free will. He was not commanded to do so. I have been with him for countless eons. Never have I seen him taste a maiden the way he tasted you. Think, Jenevier. Open your eyes to what you have already witnessed. It may not be proof of life, but it’s certainly proof of something, somethingfarmore valuable.”

“More valuable than life?” I half snorted.

“Yes, to some. At least, to you it is. Think, Maiden. Have you not been chosen before? Been tasted before? You said so yourself, you have been lickedhundredsof times.” He chuckled, then blushed. “Recall, if you will, your very first glimpse of Vanahirdem.”

“Vareilious…”

“Ah yes, Vareilious. As the Guardian at the gate upon your admittance, it was his right to do so, his right to choose you. Not all Guardians wish such a great burden. Being personally responsible for the life of another isn’t something any Vanir takes lightly. You know all too well the strength of that bond, the permanence of it, the feelings that accompany it.”

“You mean…” I vainly searched for words that wouldn’t come.

“What I mean, fair lady, is that you have been greatly blessed. Not once, but twice. You have been granted a heavenly guardianship without pause or questions from the warrior. God has great plans for you yet. As did Vareilious before, so now too, Vindicus can taste it.”

NowIwas the silent one. I didn’t ask for this. I wasn’t even sure Iwantedanother Guardian. No, that’s not true. I was sure I didnotwant another Guardian. Only trouble lay down that dark path. I speak with firsthand knowledge.

“Are you ready to hear me now?”

“No, Vybius, I am not.” I turned cold eyes toward the lovely man. “If you speak on, I will go back into the darkness and there I’ll choose to remain,” I warned.

“Do not whine as a babe, Jenevier. You have a purpose, a responsibility, a duty to perform. So as they say on layer eight, you need to suck it up, buttercup. It’s time to start acting like the grown woman you are and the mighty warrior you have become.”

I cannot imagine what the look on my face could’ve possibly been like when next I spoke. “Did you truly just say… suck it up, buttercup?”

Forgive my immaturity, dear Reader, but this is the moment I lost it, bursting into uncontrollable laughter. The very thought of a regal Vanir warrior speaking thusly was the most unexpected, hilarious thing I could possibly imagine. I only managed to stop my incessant laughter when Vybius plunged my head under the water, pulling me back up by my tangled curls.

“Have you gone mad? Have you finally slipped from all sanity?” he yelled.

I managed to hold in all but a tiny giggle, causing Vybius to release me with an exasperated sigh. He collapsed heavily back onto the chair. I looked closely at the beautiful creature sitting before me—head in his hands, ethereal silver and amethyst strands falling around to cover the furrow I’d placed upon his brow.

I bit my bottom lip so as not to release the stampede of giggles that were trying desperately to escape. “If you wished to see me naked, all you had to do was ask, beautiful warrior.” I couldn’t help the smirk in my wordsorthe one upon my lips. “You didn’t have to pull my hair.”

He gasped, turning toward me. “What are you saying? I would never—”

“Oh really? Never?” I splashed water at him and had to bite my lip again.

He finally smiled, out of relief I’m certain, and rested his angelic head on the back of the chair, casting me an incredulous look.

“Are you quite finished playing with me, Milady?”

“I have only just begun, Milord.” I splashed him again.

“I am relieved by the sight of your mischievous smile. It’s way past time you found it again.” He stood to leave. “Finish up now. I’ll get you a clean dress.”

I lay back against the tub once more. “You’re no fun, Vybius.”

“Yes, I’m well aware of that fact, Jenevier. I have been told thus many times. I guess you could sayfunisn’t my forte. Now, make haste lest we be late for the council meeting.”

Then he left me there, soaking.

“But, I’m not on any council!” I yelled through the closed door.

“You’re notonthe council, silly child,” he yelled back. “You’re on the agenda.”

I released a long breath… and slid back beneath the tepid water.


Page 9

Chapter 13

Vandermil

(VAN-dur-mill)

 

 

 

When Vybius left, he told me the council would be meeting in the last building on the right. The one before you get to the temple located in the heart of the city.

Even though I hadn’t stepped foot from his home since my arrival three days prior, I knew exactly where Vybius meant for me to go. At but a glance, it was obvious Vandermil was the twin to my home of Vanahirdem.

I did not wish to be escorted to council by Vybius. I would attend, or not, by my own choosing. Right now, I was leaning more to thenot. I did finally decide to at least shed my hermit status and stepped out into the loving daylight of this holy city. I wanted to enjoy the many amazing things I knew for certain I would behold. I wasn’t disappointed.

The city of Vandermil may have been a mirror of Vanahirdem, but the people… nowtheywere a horse of a different color. Or perhaps I should say… an Angel of a different color. For that’s what I saw everywhere I turned. Varying shades of every conceivable color donned the ethereal head of each Vanir. I saw four different shades of red with my first glance alone. Vandermil was a veritable plethora of color, a masterful painting by the greatest of artists.

I must have looked as a child in a candy store—eyes wide, mouth agape. I was fully entranced in my childlike wonder when a voice politely broke the enchanting spell.

“Beautiful, are they not?”

I turned to see a giant, familiar to me as my own brothers in every way, save the closely cut sky-blue coif he was crowned with.

“Yes, Milord. As enchanting as a flight of Pixies. As glorious as heaven’s own Angels.”

“Well now, that’s a beautiful way of putting it, I must say. But do you know why?”

“Why?” The question caught me off guard. “Why does there have to be a reason? They are beautiful and magical because they were made that way. That’swhy.”

The majestic Vanir snorted out a laugh and gave me a sideways glance as he locked his hands behind his back. “So, little maiden. It doesn’t strike you as odd they should be crowned thusly?”

“Odd? No.” I shrugged my shoulders. “That’s just the way God painted them.”

“The way God painted—” His sentence broke off into boisterous laughter.

“I’m wrong then, Brother? Are you not donned with the breathtaking brilliance of the noon day sky for beauty’s sake alone?”

“So, you admit freely I am your brother? And, you also think I am breathtaking?” He smiled, crookedly.

“Ugh, not this again,” I said with a sigh.

“Absent words?” he mocked.

“Absent thoughts,” I answered.

“Now, don’t expect me to believe that, not for a single moment. And I was told you couldn’t lie, Vashti. But, yes. I suppose you’re absolutely correct in saying Godpaintedus.”

His casual reference to my absent mask ruffled my nonexistent feathers, so to speak. “Apologies. I have shown ill grace toward you and without proper introduction. Hello, great warrior, my name is Jenevier Embarr.” I extended him my hand. “I am honored to make your acquaintance.” My smile was forced. My tone, purposefully flat.

He snorted. “The honor’s all mine, tiny Angel.” He clasped my forearm and held fast. “My name is Viggo. I am the Guardian of the Skies.”

“Truly? The skies? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Well, you’ve never been to Vandermil before.” He cocked one sky blue eyebrow. “Alas, your stay will be a short one indeed if you don’t hurry to meet the council. Shall I take you there?”

“Gratitude. You are very gracious, Viggo. Yet, I can find my way.” I smiled, turning to go.

I had no intention of going to the council meeting, and a short stay in this mockingly accursed place was precisely what I wanted anyway. If remaining absent from thismeetingwould hasten my departure, then all the better.

“No excuses then,” he said.

“Nope. No excuses at all. Very nice to meet you though,” I called back to the giant Guardian over my shoulder as I made my way down the jeweled street.

“And you as well, fair maiden.” He waved his hand at my retreating back.

Once again, I was hit with the now comforting feeling of dwarfism. My enormous surroundings elevated the little fluttering heart within me. I closed my eyes, pretended I was in Vanahirdem, and walked. I felt the calming sensation only home can bring, when I realized my betraying feet had led me to the very place I was actively avoiding—the accursed meeting hall.

The doors swung open. A frustrated Vybius burst out into the streets. I could easily hear the angry cacophony of voices coming from within.

“Are you well, good Vybius?” I asked, not really caring if he was well at all.

He spun toward my voice, a wave of relief sweeping over his perfect features. He gently took my elbow, leading me around the corner to the side of the magnificent structure.

“I am now, Milady. Tell me. How do you fare?” he whispered softly, kindness in his magical eyes.

I decided then to grab on to the only ray of hope I had found in this hopeless situation—my new friend, Vybius. We had quarreled, yes. But it felt natural all the same, like my big brother. He would fuss and I would rebel, just like siblings should. The thought made me smile.

If he is to be my older, wiser brother, then he should take me under his wing and explain all these curious things I don’t understand.

I put on my bestinnocentgrin, batted my lashes, and started blurting out all the fascinating things I had only just discovered.

“I’m doing splendidly, if I must confess.”

“Truly?” He eyed me, curiously.

“Yes, truly. I met the Guardian of the Sky, and I saw hundreds of other warriors upon my way. I wished desperately to speak with them all. I have so many things I want to ask, so many things I want to know. I cannot remember being this excited since I was but a child.”

A tiny smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Your wonderment is contagious, littlest Angel.” He brushed a loose curl out of my face, tucking it behind my ear. “You are the vision of enchantment.”

I continued, bent on turning his mind away from this silly meeting. “And did you know, the very street here is paved with precious gems in every shape and color? Some I don’t even know the name for. Will you tell me? Will you answer me everything, Vybius? Please? Let’s just go back home, you and me. We can attend the next council meeting. Let this day, my first real day here, let it be for us, not them. Let me spend the day on my new brother’s arm while you tell me all about our glorious home.”

His iridescent hand softly cupped my cheek as he stared into my pleading eyes. And when that enticing devil of an Angel gently stroked the side of my face, I shivered. Those bright silver pupils—encompassed about with deep amethyst sparkles—they bored into me, into my soul. Never in my wildest dreams have I imagined eyes such as these. Thrilled by their magical hold, I knew I was safe with Vybius. Of at least that much I was certain. The ease with which this enchanting man comforted me could be attributed not only to his warm essence and spellbinding gaze, but also to his completely natural, almost human, build.

Being with like… well,beingsis a comforting feeling for all creatures. The truth in that is no different for me. We are more at ease around familiar, natural feeling things. I love Varick and I love all my family Vanir, but it’s not easy to forget the factyouare the alien creature in their enormous world. Such was not true with Vybius.

Pressed against the side of that meeting hall, deep concern pouring from his ethereal eyes, our bodies naturally and effortlessly molded together in a perfect physical fit. There was no need for awkward adjustments because of our size difference. We were two harmonious puzzle pieces clicking perfectly together. It was oddly calming. Actually, everything about Vybius was oddly calming. He made me feel cherished… worshipped even.

Don’t misunderstand my words, Reader. Our mutual touch held no overt sexual tensions. Neither were there any flirtatious connotations implied. Please do not mistake our natural physical comfort as being desirous, at least not inthatmoment. Our connection was effortless and mutual. This is but one of the reasons why I trusted him so completely and instantaneously.

I played with his enticing purple locks as innocently and naturally as he now rubbed my cheek.

“You are as beautiful on the inside as you are on the out, Jenevier. I have never been witness to such guiltless wonderment. I find it truly enchanting. You are the purest soul I’ve ever looked upon. I cannot turn away from your glory, no matter how hard I try.”

I tapped the tip of his nose lightly. “Yes, I know. You have the exact same effect on me, Brother. Maddening, isn’t it?”

He smiled then and a look of resignation crossed his face. “Very well, little one. Let us go now and I will tell you all your angelic heart desires.”

He took my hand, leading me back to the enchanting pathway that would take us to his home.

I never had a blood born brother. It must feel just like this, surely.The thought made me smile so big my cheeks hurt.

“Oh, this one, Vybius. I have never seen a stone sparkle inside like this one. What is it?” I bent down to get a closer look and he followed my lead.

“That one is called a fire opal, sweet maiden. The fire, or sparkle inside, dances differently as you turn it in the light.”

“There you are.”

The booming voice came from the direction of the open council chamber doors. It slithered up my now fearful spine. Gone was the wonder, gone was the magic. I quickly stepped behind Vybius. He reached back, offering me assurance via his protectively warm hand as his eyes remained fixed on the advancing speaker. I held to him fiercely.

“Yes, Vahan, we are here,” Vybius called.

“Well, come inside. There’s little need to tarry out here. It’s time we got down to business.”

Reluctantly, we followed the giant warrior into the crowded chamber hall. Instant silence met us. I squeezed Vybius’s proffered hand, my fluttering heart nearly jumping into my throat.

My fear was momentarily abated when I saw a lady Vanir standing against the wall to my right. Her hair was the most vibrant shade of orange imaginable, the tip ends of which brushed the floor when she turned to look at us. I was entranced. Drawn to her, I slowly released Vybius as her essence seemed to pull me nearer. I did not pause until I was standing meekly in front of this majestic Vanir, her orange eyes wide with question.

“You are a vision of heaven, Milady. Are you the Guardian of the sun?”

She laughed softly, bending down to close the enormous gap in our heights. “No, my child. Although I am the Guardian of many things, alas, the sun is not one of them.”

I stood there, watching her glow, a constant pulse from within. She used a single fingertip to lift my chin, slightly turning my face from side to side. An approving smile sparkled in those indescribable orange eyes.

I thoughtlessly moved to touch her enticing locks. My curious fingers had yet to thread the silken tresses when the spell was broken. Vybius snatched my reaching hand, offered apologies on my behalf, and led me to the center of the council chamber.

“You havegotto stop doing that,” he hissed in my ear. “You have got to quit touching people without asking. Not only is it rude, it could be dangerous. Use your head, child. You know nothing of these people.”

“But I touchedyou. Nothingbadhappened. Did it?”

He sighed. “No, nothingbadhappened. But that’s only true for me, and only then because I knew how you were.”

I furrowed my brow. “Umm… What do you mean?”

“Jenevier, can you not tell by justlookingat me that I’m different?” He sort of rolled his eyes. “Besides, I was already aware of your tenacity, your penchant for being far more curious than is safe, tiny Angel.”

“And just how did you know that? As far as that goes, how is it you knowanythingabout me? You act as if you’ve known me for years, Vybius, since we were children. I’m certain we have never met. Believe you me, I would’ve remembered. How could I forget?” I mumbled those last words.

He ignored my questions, squeezing my fingers hard in his. “Your wicked curiosity and that damn mouth of yours will be your undoing someday. Mark my words, Maiden.”

“What bad thing could possibly come from genuine admiration? If I but touched her hair, what could happen? Would she turn into a beast and devour me? Grow fangs and suck out all my blood? Oh, oh, wait, no, wait. I got it. Maybe she’ll sprout horns from her head, split the ground open beneath us, and drag my screaming soul to hell.” I snickered then. I very nearly laughed.

He only shot me an exasperated glance, shaking his head. He mumbled, “You watched too much of that horrible thing they call television, didn’t you?”


Page 10

“Don’t forget the movies.” I scrunched up my nose at him, mockingly. “They were the best… Monsters I’ve never evendreamedof lived up on that giant screen. Blood and guts, guns and knives, roars and screams, devils and—”

“Shall we begin?”

The commanding voice boomed, cutting off my taunting words.

Chapter 14

Vahan

(VAY-hann)

 

 

 

Chattering teeth—they appeared to be the only physical manifestation of my internal tremors. Yet in my heart, deep in my gut, I was shaking so badly Vybius took pity on me. His gentle hands rested upon my shoulders, radiating loving warmth, delivering blessed calm as I stood there before the council head of Vandermil.

“Jenevier Embarr, Vashti, the wait has been long for your arrival,” Vahan said.

“Apologies.” I swallowed hard. “I wasn’t aware… umm, I mean… I didn’t realize you… I had no idea you were expecting me, sir.” Eventually, a single coherent thought, an entire sentence, slipped from my lips.

I was just relieved I didn’t stutter, relieved my voice didn’t crack like a prepubescent boy. It was then that I became consciously aware of Vybius standing behind me, practically holding me up. The elegant sentinel maintained a firm grasp on my upper arms. His body was the wall I now leaned upon, steadying my betraying knees.

Perhaps he’s the Guardian of frazzled nerves.I giggled inside my head at the curious thought.But his mere touch has calmed me many times now. No matter how badly I may resent his familiar appearance, this warrior holds a strange power over me. Perhaps I don’t hate him after all. Well, not as much as I probably should.

I lightly rested my head back against him and wiggled my shoulders. He blew a puff of sweet breath into my curls, sending one falling down into my face, over my eye. I restrained a giggle, bumping his chest with the back of my head. And of course, he immediately retaliated, lightly hitting the backs of my legs with his knees. Seriously, if he hadn’t been holding me up I would’ve fallen. After that, it was all I could do to keep my giggles inside. I wanted to pinch him so bad it was maddening. A real quick pinch right on the inside of his thigh, just a little pinch with a tiny twist, then I’d take off like a loosed arrow.

No… I’m sure he would catch me and scold me. He acts all proper and stiff. But I bet if you could get him to loosen up, he could be sooo much fun, I thought.

Vahan cleared his throat. I jumped.

Jeez, I hate this kind of thing.I sent a mental thank you to my new protector and friend.I wouldn’t be able to stand here without you, Brother.

Vybius’s grip on me tightened slightly, as if he had heard my thoughts.

“All must pass through Vandermil before their reward or punishment can be granted.” The officially robed man’s words echoed around the great hall.

I spoke without waiting to be addressed. “So, you mean when people die, you send them to their Otherworld?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean,” Vahan responded.

I scrunched up my eyebrows as I tried to understand what he was telling me. “Then, Ididdie after all?”

“No, you were spared.”

“So, why am I here? Are you to kill me now?” My voice dropped to nearly a whisper. “After all this time… why couldn’t you just—”

“No, child. We’re not going to kill you,” he said.

Muffled laughter spread throughout the crowded chamber hall.

“Gratitude, Milord.” I bowed slightly. “Why were you waiting on me, then? What have I to do with you?”

“Because you are Vanir, little one. And, because you have sinned.”

I remained silent, as did what seemed like the whole realm.

I’ve already been punished for that sin, and duly so, I thought.Besides, I’m pretty sure I’m NOT Vanir. I look nothing like them. Vashti looks nothing like them. I cannot even claim to have a job such as theirs, or rather, they cannot do the job I was given. No, I believe I’m something else entirely, something foreign, an abomination perhaps.

“She knows nothing of us.” My regal new friend spoke up on my behalf. “Explain to her properly what is expected of her. Her silence comes from fear of the unknown. Speak plainly with her. She will understand.”

“Was that notyourjob, good Vybius?” Vahan asked.

“It was, yes.” The amethyst Guardian released my arms and began affectionately fondling the many curls cascading freely down my back. “Yet, upon entering my domicile, she slipped into the darkness where she remained until a few short hours ago. There was no time.”

Gasps and whispers spread throughout the room. A nauseating feeling now seeded within me. They were whispering about Vybius. They were all judging him concerning me. How was this even possible? After all he’d done for me, all he had been put through? I was compelled to protect the only friend I’d made during my exile.

“Do you whisper now of this man?” I blatantly put the accusation before the council, before the attendees as well.

I couldn’t stop my words nor did I try to control my rising anger. I knew I only needed but to hold my tongue, yet I couldn’t stomach this gross injustice, this vile prattling concerning an innocent man.

“You are all Vanir, are you not? Who among you stood up to help your brother? Who among you even knows what this warrior had to do for me, what he had to go through just so this meeting could be possible foryou?” I narrowed my eyes as I neared the podium, coming to stand before the council chair’s elevated seat. “You, Vahan, you obviously know what it was Vybius did not get to tell me.” My cold eyes scanned the elitist row of self-righteous Guardians. “You all know what needs to be said now. Yet not a single tongue has been loosed with instructions. No, for they are all too busy flapping about unwarranted judgments against your own brother—too busy proclaiming your own value, too haughty to stoop to voicing mere directives. Pride goeth before the fall, Brothers. Take care you don’t stumble over your grossly inflated egos—your nose pointing so high your feet cannot be seen.”

“Hold your tongue, Vashti,” Vahan demanded.

I laughed rather cruelly. “Vashti isn’t here, good Vahan.” Vareilious would be proud of the smirk I now wore. “Best you should thank God she is not. She isn’t real big on speeches. That strangest of all creatures, well, she likes to let her claws do all her talking.”

Vybius’s strong arms wrapped around me from behind, pulling me back against him, gently holding me there as he placed his lips to my crown and began humming. I know not the words to his tune, but it reached my soul, heavenly peace washing all else away.

I sent mental thanks to him and received another quick squeeze in return.

“Let me do now what should have been done upon her arrival.” He bowed respectfully to the council members as he spoke. “Bear with me, Brothers and Sisters. Witness for yourselves this child’s life. Determine in your heart if it be just or tragic. See if she is truly the monster you fear, or merely the consequence of misplaced devotions.” His gentle gaze enveloped me. “The result of too much love. The exquisite outcome of a heart’s simple confusion.”

When his touching words had ceased, my comforting new friend plopped right down in the middle of the floor, smiling up at me as he patted the spot beside him.

“Come. Sit with me, beautiful lady. We have much to discuss, you and I.”

I quietly took my proffered spot next to this purple Angel, nuzzling his shoulder as he protectively wrapped one arm around me. This felt like the most natural thing in the whole world. Sitting here with my brother, being held and comforted, I forgot anyone else was even around.

He held his other hand up before us. “Jenevier, you know me now as your friend, Vybius. But I am also known as the Sage for my people.”

“Oh… like Vareen?”

“No, tiny maiden. Vareen is a seer. She sees in visions sent to her directly from God concerning the future, mostly. I am a Sage. I show you visions of the past. She imparts instruction and guidance. I bestow wisdom—provide hindsight, if you will. I am the keeper of legends, portrayer of themoral to every story.” He gave me another little squeeze, accompanied by a reassuring wink.

Vybius’s delicately lined palm began to glow. I tensed, withdrawing from him slightly.

He closed his hand and turned to face me proper. “Jenevier, trust me now. Know that I would gladly suffer through all you’ve had to endure, every single pain-filled moment, if I knew it would spare you even one tear, even one tiny crack in your beautiful heart. Believe me. I will not hurt you, now or ever. I plan to sit right here, holding you, wiping away your tears, dispelling all your past pains. It’s time for you to heal, tiniest Angel. God has need of you now. But to continue on, you must face your past demons. Abolish them once and for all. I can help you with that ardent task, Milady. Iwillhelp you. I promise.”

I studied his sincere expression. “You mean… the humming thing?”

He touched the tip of my nose with his, smiling warmly. “Yes, the humming thing. It helped, did it not?”

“Yes, it helped very much,” I whispered. “Gratitude, Brother.”

“Very good, tiny maiden. Besides, it’s notallbad. You must be filled in on what all you’ve missed while you were away.”

Those were the words I feared would come. I knew I couldn’t handle these truths. “No… Vybius, please… no,” I begged.

“Shhh, I will only show you what is absolutely necessary, or whatever else you may ask of me. I’m right here. Trust in me. I will not reveal what isn’t important, and I won’t leave you. Let me prove my loyalty. Let me show you to what end I will go just to see you healed, just to make you smile, just to hear those sweetest of all giggles.” He tenderly kissed my forehead. “Please, Jenevier, just trust me.”

I stared at his gentle smile. “So, you already know everything you’re about to show me, don’t you?”

“Yes, Milady, the whole of it. I have watched it over and over, replayed it countless times throughout the years. I know your story well, little sister. I knowyouwell.”

“Sweet Vybius, if I hold any worth to you, any value at all, then promise me one thing.”

“Anything.” He gave me a reassuring squeeze.

“You have read the whole of my new soul,” I began.

“Yes. I count it as my greatest blessing.”

“Then, promise me. When you know something is going to be particularly painful for me, tragic for my heart, detrimental to my essence… you’ll start the humming thing before I even see it.”

Vybius laughed softly. “Of course, my dear. You didn’t even have to ask. I promise to start the humming thing long before pain can master you.” He took my face in his gentle hands and lightly kissed the tip of my nose. “Are you ready, tiny Angel?”

I sighed and closed my eyes, resigning to see this through. “No, but let it begin.”

“Good girl.” He pinched my cheek and gave it a little pat. “We will start with what you already know and remember.”

Chapter 15

Viatrix

(VEE-ah-tricks)

 

 

 

“I can still remember exactly how that felt,” I whispered, as the surreal picture played out—me slipping from my bedroom window, feeling the dew-soaked grass between my toes, realizing my error… my first ofmanyerrors.

When Vybius’s palm began to glow, a shining orb appeared and the vivid movie of my life was clearly displayed before me. I was racked with so many different emotions I had to keep reminding myself to breathe. Shocked at how young and fragile I looked, I wanted to shout out warnings to that naïve little girl. She had no idea the horrors awaiting her.

The picture jerked and then changed. There stood my beautiful friend, Jezreel.

I was wholly entranced by the vision and slowly moved so I was perched upon my knees before this magical orb of my life, gaping at the tiny movie playing out before me. How can I possibly describe to you this enchanting experience? I was looking at ghosts from my past, long dead, reincarnated for me now within an ethereal ball of light. I could clearly see the tears streaming down my young friend’s cheeks.

“She’s gone.”

Hearing that tortured, pleading cry, sent me falling backwards onto my bottom. I tried to scamper away. Strong hands halted my retreat. I looked up to find my self-proclaimed Guardian, that perfectly sculpted blue sentinel was smiling sorrowfully down at me.

“I felt your fear, little one,” Vindicus said. “I knew you needed me.”

“Apologies, Jenevier. I should have warned you,” Vybius said. “Not only will you see your life, you willhearit as well. I know this is a great deal to ask. Proof to us all the terror rising within you may be too much for you to handle, is the fact that your Guardian came to you. He will protect and comfort you now. Nothing in this universe can harm you. Not with Vindicus by your side.”

The enormous blue-haired warrior sat down and crossed his legs before the past-displaying sphere. He turned to me, holding out a giant hand.

“Come, tiny Angel.” He patted his legs, offering up his lap to serve as my front row seat. “Your throne, Milady.”

Now this,thiswas funny. Here was a mighty sapphire-haired warrior of the unknown, sitting on the floor, smiling like an expectant child waiting for his gift. I couldn’t help but giggle as I took my proffered seat. The rest of the world faded away. Vindicus lent me his awesome strength and slowed my racing heart—calming me, lifting my soul.

I squirmed around until I was comfortable, making a proper chair of this massive lap.

“I can do this now,” I whispered.

Vybius had halted the image on Jezreel’s saddened eyes. The scene began to slowly move again, just as Alastyn read my farewell letter.

“Wow… He is sooo beautiful.”

I marveled at the sheer magnificence of my raven-haired first love. His ivory skin, those dark curls, and those amazingOtherworldlyemerald eyes. He was the prettiest human I had ever seen. Bar none. No other could stand before him. I sighed as I gazed upon his rare mortal perfection. As far as themundaneworlds go, this young man surpassed them all.

Vybius loudly cleared his throat, and then a deep growl rumbled from behind me.

“What? What are the two of you grunting and growling about?” I turned my attention back to the orb. “Just look at him. He is so lovely, so beautiful… so perfect.”

Vindicus snorted. “So common.”

“Perhaps compared to a majestic Vanir, but his valiant heart could put all races to shame. And look at those enchanting eyes. I remember well what happened inside me when those raven curls brushed across my face. His was the touch I first desired, his lips the first I longed for. We were given but a few hours, a single breath out of forever. Had we been given only the tiniest chance, we two would never have been parted. I would have happily spent my life within his loving embrace. My heart nurtured. My soul still intact.” A tiny tear escaped with my sigh. “Save for my dark curse, Vybius, you would now be looking upon the smiling faces of our precious children, happily playing in the lush grass surrounding that little rose-covered cottage.”

“Were it not for your dark curse,” Vybius grumbled, “I would not belookingupon you at all. My orb would never have displayed your glorious form.”

“Would that have been so bad?” I said. “Never knowing of other layers, other realms, other people. Had I never looked upon that giant crystal gate, never beheld the ethereal beauty of your people… I would have lived happily content in all my mundane ignorance. Evil isn’t something easily looked upon. This you well know. If I could only have stayed in Ashgard, I would never have known darkness.”

“You jest,” Vybius said with a snort. “How is it you so easily forget, Maiden? Ashgard was where you firstmetdarkness, first looked into the charming eyes of evil. No, you’re where you were always meant to be. Here, with us. Vandermil is your rightful home. Ashgard is where you were cursed.”

Vindicus’s breath warmed the curls hanging over my ear as he whispered, “And were it not for your dark curse, my Angel, you wouldn’t now be sitting in the lap of greatness. You would have missed out on crossing paths with utter perfection. That’s just too horrible to think about, is it not?”

He playfully poked my ribs. I giggled.

The scenes sped by quickly, blurring into a sea of blended colors. As my childhood friends faded away, the flying pictures swirled, unfocused. I could no longer tell what was happening. I sent a questioning glare toward Vybius.

“Well, none of the stuff withhimwas that important anyway,” he said. “I started too far back is all.”

I rolled my eyes at him and smiled knowingly.Men, they’re all the same, no matter their lineage.I shook my head at the thought.

Throughout the rest of that day, I witnessed things within his glittering orb I had only gotten to read about, recorded on the tattered pages of that worn prophetic novel I fished from an eighth layer discount bin.

I saw Merodach comforting his wraiths. Well, pretending to. I watched as his hunter, Mordon, hopelessly tried to track me down.

If I’d not met Vareen when I did, he would’ve surely captured me.

The scenes of my forgotten life played on. The lovely little butterfly, the disgusting old dog, the feisty pink and purple Pixies.

“Ahh… Alzeen.”

I lunged forward, placing my hands upon the magical ball. Wrapping my arms around the ethereal orb Vybius had produced from his palm, I gazed adoringly at the one man who had truly stolen my heart. I had been blessed with much love through the years, but none had been rooted quite so deep, nor felt quite so strongly, as the love I would always carry for this innocent soul I now nearly held within my grasp.

His gorgeous blood-colored hair, that delicious olive skin, those strangely exotic tattooed markings, and those beautiful ancient eyes. I had looked upon many handsome, strongly built men—such as good Vybius here—but they could never surpass Alzeen. I could see plainly now, none of them, not a single one could hold a candle to the mouthwatering physique of the man holding my hand within that magical orb. And… his awesome heart was his crowning glory. He owned me, owned the whole of me, every tiny piece.

“My Alzeen, keeper of my heart. Oh, how I have missed you, my love.”

The sphere I was leaning upon faded to black and disappeared. No longer supported by his past-revealing magic, I fell upon Vybius’s outstretched hand. My angelic sentinel pulled me back onto his lap. I felt so tiny, so alone. I drew my knees up, curled into a ball, trying my best to protect my rapidly shattering heart. There, against Vindicus’s massive chest, painful tears trickled down my cheeks and landed cold upon his glowing ethereal flesh.

“Why did you stop, Vybius?” I whispered.

“Because I am weak from lack of rest… and because…” He paused.

“Because he is jealous. As am I, tiny maiden.” Vindicus growled. “Would that you shed tears such as these for me, I would move all ten layers and heaven itself just to hold you in my arms. You openly mourn for a man who could’ve found you, could have sought you out uponanylayer, withinanyrealm. Yet, he… did… nothing. You long for a being not worthy your sorrow, Milady. Yes, I am jealous, maddened with the damnable feeling.”

“Jealous? How could either of youpossiblybe jealous? Look at you, both of you. Since your very creation, heaven hasn’t produced the like. You are incomparable glory. Women weep to look upon your rare beauty. How can you be jealous of a mere man?”

“I’m not jealous of the man,” Vybius snapped.

I stared at him, dumbfounded.

“He’s jealous of your heartregardingthe man, of your enviable feelings toward him,” Vindicus said. “We are of like-mind concerning this.”

I threw my hands up in the air. “I, for the life of me, donotunderstand you people.”

“And that has been your biggest problem, little one. This is the one thing you have always, and will continue to, stumble over. Your lack of understanding has caused you so much unnecessary pain. A woman should have met you at the gate to Vanahirdem. A woman should have been allowed to prepare you for what you should expect from the Vanir. Your innate innocence is holy and rare, child. Yet you see not its true glory… for this has always been normal for you. Trust me when I confess to you now, that self-same enchanting innocence of yours is to us… a rare gem we cannot look away from.”

That beautiful tinkling voice came from the mesmerizing orange-haired warrior I had been drawn to upon entering the chamber hall.

“Things happened as they must, I suppose. But things were not meant to be thus. Listen to me, little one. If a man or woman from any race or layer is drawn to the Vanir, it is much later in their mortal lives and only after much soul searching and prayer. If they pass the tests and make it through the gates, they’re taught for many years simply what it’s like tobeVanir. The proselytes are slowly woven into the culture. Their accumulation is natural. It completes them in a way that’s perfectly attuned to their individual soul. You, precious child, are unique in more ways than just your awesome mask. You weredriveninto the holy city and thenflunginto the harshest, bloodiest part of our world. Many who stand before you today have lived for thousands of years, and never have they witnessed even one of the things you have actually had todo, child. And such was your destiny since before your birth.”

There was nothing in the air but painful silence as this beautiful creature came to me, sat before me upon the floor, taking my trembling hands in hers.

“My name is Viatrix and I know well your journey, tiny Angel.”

“Viatrix is our seer here in Vandermil,” Vybius said.

“Yes, I am. I have not been as blessed as good Vybius here has with a glimpse into your actualsoul, but I have been witness to many of your trials and many of your missions. All Vanir stand in awe of you, of your gifts, and especially of your innocent heart. But with the same breath, I must admit we never took into consideration the fact you are a human. And because of that, you are nothing like us at all.”

“But… Varick said—”

“Yes, child. Varick told you how God took a piece of him and formed you before his own eyes. What good Varick failed to realize, what he failed to take into proper consideration, was the fact God may have taken a piece from a warrior Vanir to make you, but He made you into a human… into awoman. Because of this, you’re as fierce and powerful as any Vanir could possibly dream of being. But you are also as fragile as a little girl, a littlehumangirl. I cannot fault my brothers. The truth is, there’s never been one like you before. We have no idea how to guide you, how to train you. We have not a clue how to help you, sweetest Angel.”

“So… I’m truly alone in this world, then.”

“In a manner of speaking, yes, you’re alone. You are alone in the whole mystery ofwhatyou are. But you know yourself, Jenevier, you have never beentrulyalone throughout the whole of your life. Look at it this way. It’s like you’re the very first baby born into a world full of adults. We love you. We’re uncontrollably drawn to you. Yet, you didn’t come with instructions and we can only try to do the best we can with our limited knowledge to try and raise you properly. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we get it right. We’re all flying blind with this, child, but at least we are all flying together. Take heart in that.” She smiled sweetly at me and imparted warm, motherly love.

“Gratitude, Viatrix. Your words come way past the point of needing, but they are a gift I shall treasure always.”

I stood, gave my protective sentinel a thankful kiss on his vibrant blue locks, then turned to face one of the wisest, most beautiful women I had ever known.


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“I am far too common to express my enormous gratitude for your enlightening words. It’s how I have always been told…Every blessing has a curse, and every curse has a blessing.No one life has proven this more than my own.”

She reached for my hand. “Come, let us walk. Vindicus is needed at the gate and good Vybius must regain his strength. You seemed full to bursting with questions when first you entered here. I will gladly answer all that I know.”

“Apologies, Viatrix,” Vybius said. “But I promised Jenevier a complete tour of Vandermil.Iwill see to her.”

I touched his arm, causing him to turn, granting me full access to those incredible amethyst eyes.

“No, good Vybius. You have done far too much for me already. You need your rest. And honestly, I’m looking forward to spending some time with another woman for a change. You warriors can play hell on a lady’s heart sometimes.”

“I am no warrior, Milady. And I promise you now, I amnotplaying.”

“Vybius, enough,” Vahan said. “You need your rest and the lady has made her wishes clear.”

I could plainly see the pain on Vybius’s regal face. I turned from him, walking out into the warming light arm in arm with Viatrix.

She showed me many wonderful new things. I saw rare flowers—touched delicate petals that could be found nowhere else in all of creation. I was blessed with an enchanting, aromatic feast for my hungry eyes, a soothing balm for my wonderment, a colorful gift for my soul. To say I was spellbound would have been an understatement.

I discovered the brilliantly crowned Vanir in Vandermil display outwardly the trait of their affinity, their natural guardianship. For instance, Viggo is the Guardian of the Sky and claims pale blue coloring—his hair, brows, and eyes—all matching thusly. Likewise, vibrant pink locks denoted an affinity to flowers in the same shade. This was true with all plants. Each one had a regal Vanir tending it, sharing the coloring identifying their heavenly job. But the most beautiful, the most vibrantly coifed, were the Vanir who claimed guardianship over precious gems and metals. Vibrant red for the rubies, deep rich purple for the amethysts, bright vivid green for emeralds, and all else—gold, silver, diamond, bronze, pearl. Each element of nature boasted its own ethereal sentinel. Once you understood the concept, it was easy to tell a warrior’s affinity with but a glance. Viatrix made a game of the guessing and I didn’t get many wrong. Her instructional entertainment afforded me the opportunity to meet countless new friends face to face.

Hours later, when my head truly was full to bursting, I said farewell to the ever-lovely, always-entertaining Viatrix and made my way back to Vybius’s comforting home.

There the Sage sat, eyes half closed, fighting his long overdue slumber. I sighed aloud at his stubborn determination.

Taking my treasured brother by the hand, I led him to a warm bath.

I knew Vybius was exhausted, but I was so full of wonder and new discoveries, I chatted along incessantly as I bathed the regal Vanir. Once I had him properly robed, I prepared one of Aunt Marlise’s famous soothing teas and bade him drink. I brushed out and braided his extremely long luxurious locks, the same as I had done for Varick so many times before, talking and laughing all the while. His braid was stunning, a sparkling treasure, to be sure. The deep amethyst wove spectacularly through the pristine silver, lacing its way down his back, nearly to his knees. It just popped. I couldn’t stop looking at it, couldn’t stop touching it, playing with it. I truly envy Vybius his glorious hair.

Standing behind him, I admired his impressive reflection staring back at me through tired eyes in the large looking glass.

I tenderly kissed the top of his head. “Ah, Brother, were I to be crowned as you are, my beauty would be that of fairytales.”

Vybius reached up, gently placing his hands over mine upon his shoulders. “Your smile alone surpasses fairytales, Jenevier. Were you any lovelier, the Angels in heaven would yield to their own jealousy and still your exquisite heart, cease your magnificence.”

I chuckled. “And if all men were blessed with your silver tongue, good Vybius, we women wouldn’t stand a chance. Our hearts would melt within us and we would freely surrender them, give them away with no hope of reclamation.”

“Would that I should be so blessed,” he whispered. “The stars don’t write such glory in my eternity.”

I affectionately kissed his iridescent cheek and led him to the giant bed, demanding he lie down and rest. As promised, I lay with my head upon his chiseled chest, listening to the hypnotic rhythm of his steady pulse. I told him many stories, beguiling him with many of the things I’d seen during my recent banishment on layer eight. When the beating of his precious heart slowed and sleep finally claimed him, I laid perfectly still, breathing in his spellbinding scent until I was certain he would not easily wake.

Keeping the front door steady, I silently eased it closed, holding my breath until I heard the tiny click of the latch. Smiling contently, I strolled out into the constant sunlight and sat down, lazily resting my weary form across a giant slab of sapphire magnificently protruding from the ground.

Has any place ever been quite so spectacular?

Then, I closed my eyes and drifted.

Chapter 16

Vindicus

(VIN-dah-kuss)

 

 

 

“That’smystone your gorgeous little bottom rests upon.”

My eyes were closed but I didn’t need toseethe ethereal warrior now shading my sunlight to know his deep guttural voice.

“Ah, I figured that out all on my ownhoursago, Vindicus.” I opened one eye and looked up at the giant. “What brings you to this door, Sentinel? Should you not be guarding the gate?”

“Shift’s over. I came to check on Vybius. His glow seemed a little off today.”

He spoke as he lay down on the ground beside my priceless resting place, propped up on one elbow. My blue Guardian began plucking up blades of grass, casually chewing on them.

“Is that so? Well, Vybius is resting now and I shan’t let you disturb him.”

“Then I suppose I’ll just have to be content withyourpoor company for a while.”

I chuckled. “Surely you could do worse.”

“I could, perhaps, but not very easily. You’re about asworseas they come around here.”

I grabbed hold of his supporting wrist, jerking his arm from under his head. He casually fell back, resting his all-too-perfect form upon the lawn. His smile was lazy, tinged with mischievousness.

“He has fallen for you, ya know. A week ago, I would have called you a liar if you told me that stuffy old devil wouldeverfall in love. Now, here we are… worlds away from normal.” Casually reaching over, he tugged lightly on my skirt tail. “Is that what you do, tiny lady? Stroll into people’s lives, turn their worlds upside down, and leave with more tears than smiles?”

“Your words may be spoken in jest, but they are painfully near the truth.” I felt the burn of coming tears. “You see what is not there, Brother. I am betrothed. My heart is not mine to give,” I whispered, mostly to myself. “And you are much mistaken. He hasn’t fallen for me. Vybius and I are as kin, blood born siblings, more like.” I yanked a lock of his ethereal hair. “It was natural for us, happened within an instant. It’s easy being with Vybius… it’s comfortable.”

“For you, perhaps.” Vindicus grabbed my hand, pulling me from my sapphire pedestal. We lay on our backs, elbows touching, staring into a perfectly blue sky. “I tell you now, delicate Angel, that little Guardian in there, he sees you asanythingbut a blood born sister.” He yanked one of my curls in retribution. “Are you really so daft you cannot see the obvious adoration dancing plainly within his rare eyes? No wonder you stay in trouble, little girl. You do not think before you speak and you do not look before you step. You blindside yourself, naïve maiden.”

“What you say is true, Guardian, the whole of it. I have always been my own worst enemy. Alas, I cannot love another. No matter what may be dancing in my new friend’s lovely eyes. I am Varick’s Anicee, now and always.”

“For a woman who cannot lie, you seem to have no problem lying to yourself. I have looked upon your dainty fingers, held them even.” He picked up my hand, gently rubbing his thumb over the empty indentation where the tattoo had once been. “You are absent a manacle, dear one.”

“Perhaps upon my hand, I am. Yet the same doesn’t hold true for my heart. It is bound with a tie that cannot be seen and can never be broken.” I sighed. “When Vybius wakes, we will talk. I do not wish to hurt that gentle man.”

“Gentle?” Vindicus laughed. “Take heed, Milady. I didn’t call him an old devil in jest. There’s a reason he has never loved before. It’s not his purpose.” He rolled onto his side, propping himself back up on his elbow, staring down at me. “It’s easy to forget how incredibly young you are. When you have lived a tenth as long as I have, you’ll stop using words such as always and never. Eternity is a long time, little sis. You cannot even fathom it. There will be countless things that will change youralwaysand yournevers. Trust me on this. It is as it should be. Besides, change is the only thing that makes the endless time… bearable.”

I unconsciously played with his stunning blue locks. “And just how long have you lived, ancient Guardian?”

“If you truly wish to know, I will tell you…”

And, he began.

Hours passed like minutes. We laughed and spoke of things of old. Vindicus told me of great battles, thousands of years ago. I briefly touched on the many I had seen and described in detail the little babies in Detroit, how they had grown into amazing young adults.

He shared marvelous tales of ancient wars fought in places that no longer exist against people who no longer were. I didn’t ask if he’d helped wipe these races from every place except the history books, for I didn’t truly wish to think about that possibility. Not right now.

Time stood still as our memories danced about us. As it was in Vanahirdem, the light never faded. The day never waxed old. Only my yawns betrayed my internal clock.

“You’re going to leave me now, aren’t you?” Vindicus whispered. “Would it matter if I told you… I didn’twantyou to go?”

I didn’t answer him. I only smiled, kissed my new Guardian farewell, and made my way back to the giant bed holding my sleeping friend. Collapsing wearily beside Vybius’s silent form, I slept the peaceful dreamless sleep of a newborn babe.

Still smiling, I woke to the smell of rose tea and sugar sprinkled honey bread. The most beautiful amethyst eyes in all creation were sparkling down at me.

“Good morrow, my love.”

“Mmm.” I yawned and stretched my arms. “Good morning, Vybius.”

“Promise not to tell anyone and I’ll let you in on a little secret.”

“My lips are sealed.” I giggled as he handed me the tea.

“Last night… I slept with an Angel.”

“Truly? Well, I have a secret of my own,” I whispered. “I did as well. And I’m certainmyAngel was rarer than yours.”

We shared a cheerful breakfast together before heading down to the chamber hall, hand in hand, laughing like children. Well, I was laughing, Vybius only smiled. I ran from one enticing new thing to the next, inquiring about every little mystery I found. My lovely new friend obliged me all, never tiring of my ceaseless enthusiastic questioning.

We finally reached the crowded chamber hall where everyone sat, silently awaiting our arrival. It seems they were all too curious to learn more of my once hidden secrets, now revealed to all.

When I gaily skipped within, I released Vybius’s hand and ran to Viatrix. She caught me up in her arms, lifting me to match her towering height, and gave me a giant hug.

I marched to the center of the room and found my blue Guardian already sitting on the floor, smiling.

“Vindicus, my sunshine, I no longer fear my past. You won’t have to coddle me today, I shouldn’t think.”

“Well, lovely maiden, better safe than sorry, I always say.” He winked at me and patted his knees.

“You seem in high spirits today, young warrior,” boomed Vahan. “You must be a particularly resilient Angel indeed.”

I turned to the council head and gracefully bowed to him. “Apologies, kind sir. I have witnessed and accepted things far stranger than these proceedings here. I needed only a little time to breathe and a few moments to acclimate. I am ready to continue with the airing of my dirty laundry and past transgressions so that I may freely proceed into my glorious future, unshackled and tether free.”

“Indeed,” he said with a snort. “Let us begin.”

Vahan motioned to Vybius and his ethereal sphere appeared once more. I smiled and cast him a sideways glance when I realized he’d skipped over the intimate time I had spent with my enchanting Alzeen in the Valley of Trees. His rare magic now showed me trying to enter Vanahirdem with that same charming man at my side.

Vindicus’s giant lap shook with laughter as he watched myfirstconfrontation with the Gate Guardian, Vareilious.

“I’m amazed at the differences.” He yanked on one of my curls, apparently his favorite thing to do. “You showed not your claws when you enteredmygate, little Princess. I seem to remember you couldn’t even find your tongue. Perhaps the difference isn’t in the maiden, but in the Guardian.” He wrapped his enormous arms around my waist. “It’s good for my ego, little Angel, to know I make you stutter so. You elicit a mirrored response from me as well, internally.” He whispered that last part.

I blushed, cheeks flaming from his insinuation, which only made the crowd’s laughter, at my expense, continue.

But I soon heard the chilling warning growls, eerily emanating from my new Guardian, as he witnessed some of my harder days spent under Varick’s fierce tutelage.

“He goes too far.” Vindicus spoke through gritted teeth. “If ever we should meet, he will carry scars as bitter payment for his unnecessarily cruel actions concerning you.Yourpunishment was not deserved. His is.” His powerful arms tightened around me.

I knew, without a doubt, Vindicus meant what he said. And that horrible thought sent chills up my spine.

I must make sure their paths never cross. I know not if I could live through the loss of either.

I playfully elbowed my new Guardian. “You would’ve gone easier on me? You would have been satisfied with providing me a cushioned, and thus improper, training?”

“Oh, I would never have gone easy on you,willnever go easy on you. And as far as satisfaction, mine would have come from knowing you slept in my arms with a smile upon your face, not tears upon your pillow,” he whispered as he yanked another one of my curls.

I tried my best to remain calm and disassociated as I watched Vybius’s magic fill in the blanks of my past. My heart warmed with Alastyn’s revelation of love to the beautiful Willow. I visibly trembled through the horrific sounds of Halora’s maniacal laughter and Jezreel’s shrieks of pain. Vindicus moaned slightly when the orb displayed me walking into the Broken Wheel that fateful day, donned in slick black leather and extremely high boots.

Vybius shot him a warning glare. We all three blushed.

 

*****

 

The witnessing Vanir saw everything. Every single battle I was summonsed to. From the babies in Detroit down to the vile men in the King’s hunting lodge,allwas laid out before their hungry eyes.

I heard the collective gasps when I tore Merodach’s still beating heart from his pleading chest. I witnessed their tears firsthand, caused by Vareilious’s bitter cries for help concerning my fated execution and his bold defiance of God’s orders.

I was relieved when Vahan’s booming voice broke through that horrible scene, causing the magic to fade and disappear.

“That will be all for today. I expect your prompt attendance to bring these proceedings to a close on the morrow,” he said.

“Yes, sir. I’ll be here,” I answered.

Vindicus whispered into the curls mounded at the back of my head. “Are you well, my love?”

“Yes, dear friend. None of this was completely new to me.”

“No, butallof it was new to us,” he said.

I looked around at the tear-filled eyes of the parting Vanir.

“They’re not angry with you. Do not fear.” Vybius tried to assure me. “They feel for you. That’s all, little Angel.”

I waited until the chamber hall had emptied except for Vybius and myself.

“You ready?” He extended me his hand.

I sighed heavily. My heart felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. “You go on ahead, Vybius. I’ll be home soon. I need a little alone time.”

“You now realize what the morrow holds for you, do you not? Until now, it has been painful butknownto you, for the most part.”

“Yes. Tomorrow will either be a recount of my exile, or…” I paused with the terrifying thought.

“We have no need to witness your exile. We have watched you every moment since your first step out of that swamp,” Vybius stated, regretfully.

“I feared that answer more than you know.” I tried to smile but I could feel the tears burning the backs of my eyes. “So, tomorrow I’ll get to see my life without me in it.”

Vybius took my hands. The pity in those beautiful amethyst eyes was almost more than I could stand.

“Or rather, tomorrow I’ll see what life is like for my loved ones… without me in it.” Tears began to silently spill down my cheeks.

He took me in his arms. “Shhh, you knew the time would come, my love. You may have refused to speak it aloud, but I have already seen the tide of dread surrounding your heart.”

“You know what happens, don’t you?”

“Yes, little one, I know.”

We stood silently, embracing. My heart trembled with fear of the knowledge I was no longer sure I wanted.

“Vybius?”


Page 12

“Yes, my love?”

“What will happen to me?”

“What do you mean, tiny Angel?”

“I mean, when all is revealed. What’s next? What will happen to me?”

“That, my love, I do not know. My talents lie in the past. Only your own heart or a vision from Viatrix can answer for your future.”

“But I’m not dead.”

He chuckled. “No, you are very much alive.”

“So, I won’t be going to the Otherworld.”

“No, you will not. It’s not your time.”

“Then I’ll either return to Vanahirdem or stay here, I suppose.”

“There are many paths that may be open unto you. If you no longer wield your mask, youmaybe able to return to your little rose-covered cottage. Or God may have need of you on a different layer, or many different layers. I don’t believe your future will be set until you know…” He paused.

“Until I know what I’ve missed,” I whispered.

“Yes, until then.”

“Vybius, do you know you’re incredibly precious to me now?”

“Yes, my dear. I am one of three you now treasure within that pure and loving heart. It makes me jealous.” He winked at me, squeezing me just a little tighter.

“Stop it. You knew I loved Varick and—”

“I was not speaking ofthem,” he interrupted.

“Then, wha-who—”

“I was only speaking of the names that bounce around in your head right now.”

“In my head? You can read my mind?”

“Sort of. I can see inside you.” He placed a finger on my chest to indicate what his words now revealed. “Jenevier, you have an unfathomably immense capacity for love. Your heart takes in new friends as easily as a child takes in stray puppies.” He smiled and gave me another little squeeze.

“So, you’re like my stray puppy?”

“No.” He raised one eyebrow, effortlessly displaying that Guardian smirk I was so used to. “Vindicus is like your puppy.”

“Vindicus?” I laughed. “Have you seen the warrior?” A mischievous smile crossed my face. “He is no pup. That giant Angel is—”

Vybius tightened his embrace, cutting off my words with his internal growls and flashing silver eyes.

“Do not finish your words concerning your Guardian, Jenevier. Do not play with me, for I know your heart. Vindicus is like your puppy, yes. And Viatrix is as revered as your dead aunt, in your eyes. But me… you love me as a man.”

My gasp rang in my ears, pierced the silence of the empty hall.

“No… Vybius. You are as my… as my treasured brother. You live within my heart, yes. But it’s not likethat.”

“It’sexactlylike that, Jenevier. You knew it the moment you first heard my voice, the moment you first laid eyes upon me. You desired me almost as much as I have long desired you. I am certain if there was no Varick and no Alzeen, you would already be accepting the feelings you’re so desperately trying to hide from.”

I struggled within his arms but he held me firmly in place. Lifting my chin, he looked deep into my terrified eyes.

“Shhh, my love, all is well. I had always hoped it would be so with us.”

“Wha-what are you saying, Vybius?”

“I’m saying I have loved you as a woman for so many years now. You stole my heart the night you danced barefoot at Marlise’s life celebration.”

“But h-how could… How did you see that? Were you there?”

“I couldn’t see it while it was happening. And, no, I was not so blessed as to be able to see it with my own eyes. You appeared in my palm the moment of your exile. But I was blessed with your past all the way back to the day your destiny was fated. Back to the day Merodach marked you. So, I have loved you for many lonely years now, my dearest Jenevier.”

Why is this happening? How can we be as we were? We can’t. Not now. Could this day possibly get any worse, I thought.

If I had only known then…

Chapter 17

Vanahirdem

(van-nah-HEAR-dem)

 

 

 

After much begging and pleading, Vybius granted my request.

“Very well, Milady. I will return home aloneonlyif you promise me now, you will not tarry too long.”

“I promise.”

“Do you also promise to lie within mine arms this night?” he whispered.

“Vybius, I laid within your arms last night, and every night since my arrival. Why do you ask thusly?”

“Now that the words have been spoken, now that you know the truth I had kept hidden in my heart… I wish to say them to you again as I hold you in my arms, upon our bed.”

“Vybius, do not do this thing. Please. I love Varick. This you know.”

“Did I ask you to stop loving him? No, of course not. Only admit you love me as well.”

“I cannot.”

“We shall see. When you walk through our door once more, tiny Princess, we shall see.” He tenderly kissed each cheek and then my forehead before he silently left the chamber hall.

I stood there, alone, for a dreadfully long time. I prayed silently for the world to stop spinning long enough for my mind to catch up. Something bad was coming toward me, hurling through the universe, racing to my side. I felt it swell within my gut, threatening to empty my stomach. I took a deep breath before stepping out into the daylight once more.

I missed the moon. I didn’t realize just how much until this very moment. The moon brought with it a sense of peace, of rest, of closure. The lovely moon was the perfect punctuation mark to end the day. The moon was also what I looked at as I sent out my thoughts, my worries, my wishes, and my prayers. Yes, I desperately missed the moon.

With no conscious intent, I walked to the heavenly temple in the center of the city and placed my hands upon the ornate handles of the incredibly massive doors. I patiently waited for the exact ethereal notes to whistle through the lattice. Instead, I heard a soft voice within my head bid me enter.

With only the slightest amount of pressure, the enormous doors moved freely, like a willow’s branches in the breeze. I entered a cathedral identical to the one in Vanahirdem and once again made my way to the exalted mercy seat.

Pausing momentarily to take in all the glorious statues of mighty warriors and valiant men who had served faithfully throughout the millennia, I tried to imagine the amount of evil God had vanquished through their magnificent hands.

“You are a true and validating credit to your awesome creator,” I whispered.

The reverberating echo of that little whisper came back to me a hundredfold. Yeah, I jumped. What? It was eerie.

Kneeling before the simple looking bench placed within the heart of such vast splendor was completely surreal. The vivid reenactment of my own glorious transformation played through my mind. Yet, in reality, I was lost. I had no idea what lay before me. I was sorrowful for what now lay in my past, and I was utterly terrified of what the unknown present may hold.

Releasing a deep sigh, I collapsed wearily across the exalted seat. And then, I cried. I just cried. I shed tears for my friends back home, all of them. I wept for my brothers and sisters in arms. I mourned for my homeland of Ashgard. But above all else, this time… I cried for myself.

I mourned being cursed when I was yet too young and too dumb to handle it better. I pitied my naïve self for being forced into combat training.Combat training. I still can scarce believe it. I went from a sheltered little village mouse to a vicious, bloodthirsty killer in ten short years. Now, four years later, here I sit… a little mouse again. If I could search through the annals of time, I was certain I could never find a woman as pathetic as I had turned out to be.

I was in the middle of one serious downward spiral, spinning out of control, knowing the crash was coming, and coming tomorrow.

“Can you end it now, God? Can you please just grant me rest? I truly cannot fathom how my heart keeps right on beating no matter how many times I will it to stop. And look at me now. In the exact same position I was just four years ago. Nothing has changed… nothing.”

One thing has changed.

There was no voice. I mean, I was speaking out loud to the walls, but no actual voice joined in my miserable oration. The answers were simply placed within my head. It was like, the very moment I spoke a question, the answer was just there, plain as day. And the voice I heard it in was warm and relaxing and lovely. It literally soothed my aching soul. It made the hair at the nape of my neck stand up, and not in a scary way. That voice was the embodiment of peace. Sweet blessed peace.

“One thing? What is it? What one thing has changed, Lord?”

Without being told, I looked down at my hand. There, I saw the indention where Varick’s manacle had lovingly yet briefly resided.

“This?Thisis what you bring to tortured mind?Thisis the change you speak of? That… I’m no longer my beloved’s? Why? Why would you call upon my greatest pain, my worst failure, my most wretched loss, and say that’s how I am changed? Is there no comfort left for me? No hope? Then why let me live? Why spare my life? Take me now, God, please, just take me now. I no longer have purpose if I no longer have hope. End it here and end it now, for I am done. Do you hear me? I am done!”

I was shaking, sobbing uncontrollably. I collapsed, curling into a little ball, crying and begging until I ran completely out of tears. They just dried up, just stopped. I was utterly spent, totally exhausted. Eventually, I slept.

I did not dream, neither did I rest. Yet, I was carried upon the clouds of a vision, floating, hovering above Vandermil. There I witnessed mynewfamily searching for me, calling out my name. I drifted until I stood upon the skies over Vanahirdem, my old home, my old family. I closed my eyes, refusing to witness any more pain, my lids tightly shut.

Open your eyes, child. See what you must now see. Let your eyes behold what your heart must soon accept. Remaining ignorant will not change the truth. Open your eyes, shed your ignorance, embrace your future.

I knew without knowing, I would be hidden from their angelic view. I stepped from the clouds and walked, hovering just above the hallowed ground. This was the home of my heart, and simply seeing it within a vision brought me glorious peace. I walked to my own home and ran unheeding through the door. It was empty. I searched each room before I finally returned to the crystal cobbled streets. My city was deserted. I had found my home, yet I was alone.

Does this mean they’ve forgotten me? Is the absence of my family a sign I no longer belong here? Is this no longer my home?

A familiar booming voice wafted to my ears—Valadrog, chief among my people. I gave chase.

“For three long years we were denied entrance to our most Holy of Holies. We were being punished. Punished for disobeying our duty and punished for turning from the summons of God. For three long years did we grieve and for three long years did we repent. Yet God is merciful and forgiving. One year ago today, we were again deemed worthy. One year ago today the song of remittance was heard once more in Vanahirdem.”

As I approached the breathtaking cathedral, I saw the doors stood open as the whole of Vanahirdem was gathered within. Valadrog was standing before the mercy seat as he addressed my brothers and sisters.

I slowed my pace, silently entering the holy courtyard. My heart was racing; it beat wildly in my ears. But Valadrog’s voice drowned out its pounding.

He continued, “For the first time I could remember, I feared. I feared what I might find within these hallowed walls, and I feared what I might not. Would the bones of our beloved little sister be laid out before me, or would her fate be far worse? I knew not.”

I climbed the pristine steps and stood within the open doorway. Vareen sat to the left of her husband. Vareilious and Vinika stood together on the far right side of the podium. There was a stabbing pain in my heart when I saw their hands were clasped—their ethereal eyes, moist. I loved them both. I instantly stamped out the pangs of jealousy I had no right to feel.

“What we found awaiting us inside this holy temple was neither our worst fears nor was it an answer to our questions. For here upon the mercy seat lay my son’s manacle, but no trace of our lovely little sister could be found. Varick’s mourning would not find an end that day. But this is a new day, Brothers and Sisters, and this new day shall be one of rejoicing and song. Sorrow will flee from us now, vanquished. We deny its hold, halt our tears.”

I had already made my way into the midst of my seated family before I noticed the two kneeling figures on the steps at Valadrog’s feet. They were robed in purest white, a delicate golden pattern stitched throughout their elegant raiment.

The identity of this finely arrayed couple slowly began to register in my racing mind. Vareen stood, eyes wide, trembling slightly. It almost seemed as if she were looking at me. Well, more like, lookingthroughme.

“This day will be marked on our hearts and recorded within our history as the joyous day I was blessed with the holy, eternal bonding of my glorious son and his—”

Valadrog halted his eloquent words when his ethereal wife’s shaking hand seized his forearm. All eyes went to Vareen. And then, all eyes slowly followed her stricken gaze to where I stood amidst them.

This isn’t happening. This cannot be real. My eyes deceive me. I will destroy the trickster who now toys with my sanity, toys with my soul. I will rip the offender’s heart from their chest and devour it before their very eyes.My maddening thoughts threatened to claim my consciousness.

My mind may have been racing, yet my invisible body was frozen. I moved not, neither did I breathe. Unable to advance, too terrified to flee, I simply stared, eyes fixed on the kneeling man. I willed his regal cloak to fall, desperate for the revelation I knew would only destroy me.

Then… the golden amber eyes of the hooded man I loved turned his questioning gaze upon my nothingness.

Everything happened so quickly. I will admit to you now, most of it remains a blur within my mind.

What this joyous day trulywasregistered within my destroyed heart in the same instant Vareen moaned out a sorrowful“Nooo…”and Vareilious yelled to Varick,“Brother…”

I screamed with my entire soul.

I felt the pain of a thousand deaths channel through me, hollowing out everything I was until nothing but a fragile shell was left standing in that sacred cathedral. My shrieks seemed without end as they echoed, bouncing off those hallowed walls.

I willed instant and blessed death upon my existence. I willed a halt to my very creation. Only the wind came. I was caught within the torrential storm of my own self-destruction and blown away from the horror to which I had been an unwilling witness.

My screaming didn’t halt when I woke in the temple at Vandermil. I couldn’t control it, couldn’t stop it. My eyes were wide open, lids stretched to the point of tearing, painfully so. My screams refused to cease.

I was being torn completely in two, both physically and mentally. Never have I known such pain. Being tortuously beaten and broken over and over during my training, paled in comparison to this mind-altering, soul-destroying agony now ravaging my body as I lay on the floor of their most Holy of Holies.

I had received the answers to my questions, and in so doing, had annihilated anything that was left ofme. Any shred of Jenevier, any thread of humanity whatsoever, was completely and utterly obliterated. In short, I was done, period. I was done with love, done with compassion, done with justice… done withlife.

My beautiful angelic husband’s golden eyes flashed in my mind once again, searing their likeness upon my shattering soul.

“He forgot me… He left me… My Alzeen loves another… I am no longer his Anicee… He lied to me!” My voice rose with each word I spat out.

I could feel that same incredible warming love trying to creep back in and soothe my crumbling heart. I shut it down, refusing it entirely.

Barely standing upon trembling knees, I took a deep breath and marched out of that holy temple, never to look back.

I—as a human, as a woman, as a warrior—was irrecoverably... altered.

Never again could I be who I had been only that very morning. Epic pain and tragic loss marked me a new creature, a darker version ofme. I hated her, I hated him, hated them, hatedeverything.

If I could not kill myself, then I was hell bent on finding someone else to do the job for me.

Ever since I was eighteen years old, I had lived in fear. I had been tortured, been beaten, fought demons, slaughtered men, been lied to, destroyed, and horribly misled.

I screamed with all my strength, with all my pain. “I am finished! This is enough! For half my life, I have suffered and bled and very nearly died countless times. And one thing, justonelittle thing made it all worth it. And now, that has been taken from me as well. How is thisjustice? I freely offered my own soul to the only human I had ever wronged. I served the innocent and delivered justice upon the unrighteous. This I did on a daily basis, yet I am denied even a sliver for myself. Why take Alzeen? Why give Varick to another? This… this is wrong… I cannot accept this… I won’t allow it… I willdiefirst.”


Page 13

I felt the icy chill of blackest hate enveloping me. I opened my arms—welcomed it, fed off it.

The temple doors swung open of their own accord just as I reached them. There without, stood the whole of Vandermil. Their shocked, terrified faces failed to stir a single emotion within me.

I was dead inside. Only my shell remained.

As I stepped into the brilliant sunlight, my lost lover’s ethereal eyes reappeared in my mind. The pain I’d thought could not possibly get any worse, ripped through me, sending me agonizingly to my knees. Screams tore from my throat, echoing across every beautiful home in that heavenly city.

Sickeningly warm blood filled my mouth as my throat was rent asunder from the strain. I spat it upon those pristine steps and got back to my defiant feet. Love would not stop me, not as long as merciless pain pushed me forward.

Vybius stepped in front of me, terrified worry distorting his perfect features. “Jenevier, my love, what—”

I roared at him as if I were a feral beast.

He looked upon me—blood covering my teeth, dripping from my chin, eyes wild and vacant. Then he looked into my empty soul. I know this because I saw the realization cross his flawless face. And I relished the moment.

“No… Jenevier… No…” He gasped out his halted words.

Every Vanir drew back at Vybius’s sorrowful cry, giving me wide girth to exit their fairytale city, unabated.

All that is, except for Vindicus, my sapphire Guardian. I didn’t see him coming. He was just there, in all his ferocious glory.

“You shall not pass, Maiden. You cannot leave this city.”

Hatred and venom dripped from every word I spat at him. If there was any human left within me, she was fading fast.

“I am no maiden, Warrior. Let me pass or kill me now,thoseare your options.”

“Do you think you can possibly leave this place if I refuse to let you go? In all heaven and hell, you could not do this thing. Show me your claws, tiny Angel. Let us see now who shall lead this little dance of ours. Let’s find out who’s the Angel to be most feared… you or I? Whose claws are sharper? Whose blade cuts deeper? Vashti or Vindicus? Let us find out the truth of it then. Who is the unopposed commander of strength? Come, Maiden. Let us see. Can you best me?”

“Vindicus, stop!” Vybius yelled. “She no longer claims her wingsorher claws. Vashti doesn’t live in her heart. Not anymore. Do not do this thing.”

“Oh, just shut it, Vybius,” I hissed.

Tilting my head from side to side, I popped the tense bones in my neck and rolled my shoulders, loosening the knotted muscles in my back. Then, I matched that gorgeous blue Guardian’s heated glare.

“Say when,” I hissed through a growl.

His eyes narrowed. He stared right through me, gazed deep within me. I know not what he saw, but a pious smirk turned up one corner of his perfect mouth.

“…When.”

That was all I wanted to hear. With or without my mask, I was lethal beyond his imagining. I struck first.

Before the smirk was gone from the celestial giant’s lips, I flipped over his head—the heel of my foot landing solidly upon his lower back. I felt the vertebrae give. Continuing through the motion, spinning to increase the power of the next kick, my heel landed against his temple.

Vindicus staggered, barely.

I flipped back over his shoulders, landing upon those lovely cathedral steps, but I misjudged the edges and lost my footing. Vindicus proved quicker than either Varick or Vareilious had been. His shoulder hitting my chest at full force was nothing compared to the jarring thud that vibrated through both our bodies as he slammed my back into those elegant double doors.

The pitiful sound that escaped with my last drop of air gave him pause… not much, but I seized the instant and escaped his grasp by landing a lip-splitting blow with my head. This action wounded us equally. Blood now dripped from both our mouths and the gash in my forehead left by his razor sharp teeth poured blood into my eyes, partially blinding me to my opponent’s whereabouts.

I struck and darted, hit and dodged. I was without weapon but fueled by vast rage. Against whom, I didn’t care. I was determined to take my vile vengeance out upon all creation. It mattered not to me. Nothing did. I would destroy and destroy and destroy until I finally met the creature who could give me what I wanted… death.

I taunted the mighty warrior. My bloodlust increased, my body hummed with my forgotten channeling abilities.

“Come on,Angel. Is that all you’ve got?” I sneered. “You’re clumsy, ancient, and you bleed too much.”

“That’syourblood sprinkled upon the ground, little one.” He smiled. “I shall require more before I’m done with you.”

The unmistakable sound of metal upon metal, sword leaving scabbard, grabbed my attention. I cocked my head to the side and waited.

“Hold! Sheath thy weapon, Warrior,” Vindicus shouted. “No one must interfere with our most glorious of dances. I willceasethe Angel who defies this command!”

I looked, yet I did not know the green-haired Guardian whose blade now stood bare. In but a breath, I flew behind Vybius, relieving him of the seraph dagger I knew he wore beneath his robes. I leapt upon the now armed, unknown green-haired Vanir, closing my hand about his clenching the hilt. Breaking his lovely nose was the easiest thing within the whole of this battle. He released the sword as blood spewed forth, heavily mingled with his tears. I kicked off his sculpted chest, flipping over the surrounding Vanir, landing squarely in front of my opponent once more.

“Oh, Jenevier,” Vindicus half moaned. “You arouse me as no other. I have sought you for ten thousand years and knew you not when we met. This day was fated since the beginning of time. Yet never did I realize how glorious it would be, how gloriousyouwould be. Your anger has lit a fire within me. Your darkness produces wicked desires, deliciously wicked desires. I will devour you, this I swear. Tell me. How is it you hid from me? How did I not see who you truly were?”

“You’re mad, old man,” I taunted. “Your words prove my truth. Or perhaps your many thousands of years are wearing upon your mind as badly as they now show upon your brow.”

He laughed. “Are you my equal, Maiden? Are you the one prophesied, the one who will best me?” That guttural growl resonated within his chest. “I truly hope so, myLittle Fire. You can’t possibly imagine just how much. Come, let us see.”

Vindicus drew his giant blade, wasting no time with posturing or formalities. He easily swung that massive two handed sword with but one as he licked his lethal teeth… and attacked me more ferociously than any demon I had ever faced.

I dodged his deadly blow at the last second.

Turning, I caught a glimpse of one single golden curl softly floating through the air. Like a discarded feather, it lit upon the crystallized courtyard.

Shock froze me and my opponent where we stood—bewildered, stunned. My stolen blades clattered noisily to the ground. I swayed.

“My hair… you… You cut my hair…” I whispered, amazed.

I looked to Vindicus. His mouth was hanging open in disbelief. His gaze was fixed upon the shiny, solitary ringlet… as the breeze slowly carried it away, strand by precious strand. His eyes met mine. I saw remorse within them, fringed with a tiny dose of fear. Very tiny.

The now shortened curl hung down over my left eye, bouncing softly within my vision, taunting me. It was too much, my last straw, my final trembling hold on blessed sanity. Everything went black. I don’t remember attacking that mighty warrior. I only remember how my claws felt as they tore through his once beautiful face.

Vindicus didn’t defended himself. Having tossed his blade aside before I reached him, he simply braced for the impact he knew was coming. Only when the blood poured down, soaking his raiment, did he cease my assault. Grabbing me by my tangled curls, his massive hand pulled me from him, effectively halting my tirade.

“Have you forgotten your training so soon, little one? Did you forget all Vareilious taught you? Losing control of your emotions like this only makes a disgusting mess. One I shall enjoy watching you clean up.”

He flung me by my hair, hurling me through the air, sending me crashing into those pristine cathedral steps.

All present heard the audible sound of my breaking ribs.

Quickly jumping back to my feet, I attacked again. Vindicus wasn’t expecting my immediate retaliation, so my first two hits landed solid. The wrenching sound of his left mandible and right clavicle collapsing inward did nothing to deter my onslaught, but the mighty warrior himselfdid.

I failed to consider my biggest disadvantage of a frontal assault upon a giant. I have to get in way too close—short arms.

Vindicus used my hair against me once more. Grabbing it, he spun me around, pinning my back against his massive chest. He easily wrapped his other arm across me, holding fast to my heaving shoulders. Now, with but a simple twitch, he could snap my neck, remove my head, and walk away.

Yet, he did not. He simply halted. I was inescapably locked within his vise-like arms and, he… just… stopped.

“Do it!” I screamed.

Vybius yelled out his opposition to my demands.

Vindicus simply bent down and licked my exposed neck. “There is no fear left within you, Maiden. You taste like… like… a void.” He shuddered.

“Get her to the dome, now,” Viatrix yelled.

“No! Don’t youdaretake me there, Vindicus. If you do not end me here and now, I swear by all that is rotten in this universe, I will gut each and every one of you in your sleep.”

“Truly, Milady? You plan to gut us? And in our sleep, no less.” He chuckled. “Mmm, you truly are my Little Fire. Will you burn me one day, devil girl?” His fingers tightened painfully within my curls. “Now, what shall I do with a fiery wee thing such as yourself? How about I keep you as my pet? I’ll make you a pretty little leash, take you with me everywhere I go,” he said, laughing through his words.

“Enough!” Vybius snapped. “You don’t corner a beast and then poke it with a stick. Take her to the dome immediately. You know what to do, Vindicus. I will meet you there as soon as I’ve gathered all I need.”

“Look into my eyes, good Vybius, and hear me well,” I hissed. “I hate you and every word that has ever spilled from your deceiving lips. I hate your power. I hate your magic.And… I hate your damn smile most of all.”

The amethyst man who had declared his love for me came as near as he dared. “Apologies, dear one. You have been wronged at every turn by every single person in your cursed life. I am amazed it has taken you this long to invite the darkness. You prove far stronger thanIever was. I love you more with every breath that fills these lungs. Yet you must know, Jenevier, we can never let you leave Vandermil.”

I started crying then. Even though it sickened me, I couldn’t halt the tears.

“Vybius, if this is true, if you do love me, please… kill me now. Don’t prolong my torture. I will not resist you. If you have even one ounce of compassion for me, end it here, I beg you.”

He ignored me. “Take her to the dome, Vindicus.”

Chapter 18

Vindicus

(VIN-dah-kuss)

 

 

 

I heard their whisperings and chatter as my winged captor flew me to a place I never wished to see again.

“Is she Angel or devil?”

“She must be the demon, the one forbidden the change. The Guardians loved her too much. The blood she will shed should be upontheirheads.”

“Vindicus should’ve finished her off.”

“Who will rest easy among us as long as she yet draws breath?”

“Did you see what she did to Vindicus? What she did to his face?”

“Yes, and with her bare hands. Her barehumanhands, no less.”

“If that is Jenevier, I pray wenevermeet Vashti.”

I closed my eyes, willing my ears to go deaf to their words. “Vindicus, my Guardian, do not do this to me. Do not heal me. Show me the tiniest measure of mercy. End my wretched life. I beg you, Brother, please… cease me.”

“You ask me to destroy my heart? My future? How can you even ask such a thing? You know well how losing your one true love feels, do you not? Is that not what this apocalyptic outburst was all about? And yet, you would still ask this of me?”

“Vindicus, Brother, there is no possible way in this world you could love me yet, much less know the love I feel for Varick. You and I have spoken only thrice since my arrival. Do not compare your loss to mine. You couldn’t shoulder the sorrow I now bear.”

“Are you being serious, or do you jest, Maiden? How short is your memory? Think back, my love. Tell me exactly how long it took Vareilious to fall madly and desperately in love with you?”

“I am absent the recollection,” I lied.

“In an instant, with but a glance. One look and the greatest warrior of that holy city was eternally under your vile power. How can you live with us,beone of us, and understand nothing at all about us?”

“Do not speak to me of eternal love.”

“Not only will I speak to you of it, I will show you. Today and every tomorrow throughout all time and eternity.”

“Vindicus, you are mad. I can no longer feel. You speak to a woman absent a heart—empty everything save anger and words.”

“Then I will be pleased with her words alone.”

I resignedly closed my teary eyes. “I am now absent them as well.”

The giant dome grew ever nearer as I struggled futilely with my Guardian. He didn’t even light upon the marble floor, but flew straight to the healing waters. And there he hovered.

“Vindicus, do I even hold worth to you?”

“You are everything, my Angel,” he whispered.

“I’m not an Angel, as much as you wish it to be so.”

“Ah, my love, once these blessed waters have washed over you, I will show youexactlyhow much I care for you.”

“Please, do not do this, Brother.”

He wrapped his ebony pinions around me as we slowly dropped into the sacred pool, completely entwined inhislove… andmyhate.

“My dearest Jenevier, this moment was always fated to be so,” he whispered. “I feel that truth with every cell of my being.”

I ceased my futile resistance and gave in to the inevitable.

 

*****

 

The waters were everything I remembered them to be; amazing, rejuvenating, healing. And that’s exactly why I now hated them beyond measure. I did not wish to be healed, didn’t want to be restored.

My only desire… was death.

I turned to my Guardian captor. For the first time, I saw the horrible damage I had caused to his lovely face. Deep gashes left three gaping wounds down each cheek. They still bled terribly. I felt shame, such shame I cannot express it with words… tears alone must suffice in the telling. I let Vindicus hold me there as our bones mended—blood and bruises washing away.

Something was different this time. The power of this particular water dove into my shattered soul, forcefully weaving precious love throughout—an undeserved gift. God was nowdemandingI receive His grace even though I had stubbornly walked out on Him just a few moments ago. I resisted nothing. I just let it happen the way it was meant to. I was broken in every possible way. Only when I completely gave up, completely surrendered, did I allow the healing love of God to fix me. I floated there, absent everything, and He filled my empty shell with whatHewanted me to be made of. He created me again, for a fourth time—when I was born, when I was transformed, when my soul was returned to me, and now… only days later.

I knew what was happening to me was going to be a glorious, world-altering experience—my world. Yet I had to be at the absolute lowest point in my existence, with no fight or will left within me, before my original transformation couldtrulybe completed.

Vindicus felt the tremors of my re-creation. His responding growls tingled inside me, gliding through my renewing essence. They wove themselves in with the powerful etherealthreadsnow forming me, stitching me back together, knitting me a new core, a new spirit, a new heart. It was intoxicatingly sensual.

“I told you this moment was always fated to be so,” he said through a growl.

His deep guttural reverberations had a rippling effect within me. Part of him became part of me, a bonding like none before. We were alive, relishing in the flawed creatures we once were… and the new beings we were fast becoming. This was no accident. An epic evolution of this magnitude must have always been part of a larger design. And how could it not be?

We were one. Yet, not as it had been with Varick. The deep pull and undeniable love I immediately felt with my beautiful Vanir Prince was as natural and easy as breathing. With but one look into Alzeen’s heart, I was lost to him for all eternity.

This, this was different. This was more. I wasn’t simply made from a piece of him. We wereremade…together—the same person in two bodies, two vastly different forms. I knew his thoughts and his heart as if they not only resided, but originated within my own mind, my own chest. I could no more resist this warrior than I could resist the urge to breathe. He was me… and I was him.

“Vindicus, what is this?” I whispered. “What’s happening to me, to us? I fear.”

“Mmm… It’s not the stuff youweremade from that defines you now, my love. It’s the stuff you were remade from that calls outonlyfor me. My essence has erased his, dearest Princess. That’s the only way you could be healed. We are bonded, you and I. As I was subject to you upon sight, so now are you subject to me. We are one, and it is thrilling!”

And he was right. I felt every emotion he felt with mirrored intensity. I am, now and forever, a different creature.

“Thisis who you are?” My body was trying to adjust to the vastness of what I could now see, now touch, now feel. “This is what it feels like to be Vanir?”

“Ahh…Nowyou get it, my love. And no, this isn’t what it feels like to be a Vanir. This is what it feels like to be a Warrior. We are the lucky few. Now, do you understand the intensity with which Vareilious loved you? Do you understand the raw ferocity of my emotions, my passion for you,allof you?”

I gasped. “…Yes.”

“And do you now see what great restraint it takes to keep from devouring you this very moment?”

“…Yes.”

“Only one as powerful as atruewarrior can love this hard, and restrain from loving as well.”

“Do not forget, Guardian, I feel what you feel. You may say restraint, yet now I know what is truly in your heart.”

Vindicus’s labored breathing matched my own, restraint the furthest thing from our minds. “It’s the law of nature, my love, the alchemic law of equivalent exchange. The price paid must be equal to the gift received. As much of me was given to you… so the same of you now lives in me.”

“But, Vindicus, if we both now feel this powerfully toward each other, if the pull is this infinite and neither one of us is the commander of control… will this not be dangerous beyond reasoning?”

“Yes.” He growled as he grabbed the back of my neck, pulling me to him. “You do not yet know what you are, Princess. ButIdo. Ooh, and that sweet knowledge is a blessed gift. As painful a thing as you had to witness this day, it could have been no other way. You aren’t likehim, my love. You are completely different creatures. You are so much more. You always have been. Varick wasn’t your fated lover. No matter how badly he wished it to be so, he never was.”

I wanted this man, this warrior, more than I had ever wanted anything in my entire existence. His powerful aura consumed me. All else left my mind save my desire to have him. And our unique connection only confirmed our intense, rising passions.

Vindicus halted but for an instant, looking deep into my eyes. I could feel the unquenchable fire raging inside him, raging inside me.

“This is dangerous, evenIcan sense that,” he whispered.

“I’m terrified,” I confessed. “I fear I’m not strong enough to control this.”

“It’s an unknown thing for us both. Yet, I would surrender my wings to keep from being denied this, from being deniedyou,” he whispered against my waiting lips.

Pushing me up against the marble wall of that blessed pool, he pressed his weight against me. His kiss was like burning lightning. His fervor—unquenchable. Vindicus ravished my trembling body with his sweet lips. Moans and gasps escaped me, unhindered, thus fueling his intensity. I felt I would explode if he didn’t soon claim me, and his reaction to that thought was almost bestial. Pulling me ever closer, he pressed harder against me, our bared flesh sparking where we touched. My melting response removed any doubt or restraint he had left.

When Vindicus looked deep into my eyes, when I saw the smoldering fire spilling forth from those flawless sapphires, I was then and forever changed. Freedom was no longer upon my mind, no longer upon my lips. I wished not for it, not anymore. This man owned me—irrecoverably, undeniably owned me.

His muffled roars rumbled within his glorious chest, purring and humming. His raspy breathing upon my neck sent erotic chills rippling from my crown to my heels. I pulled him against me, digging my nails into his beautiful flesh. I couldn’t get him close enough, couldn’t kiss him deep enough.

“Vindicus…”

He only growled in response.

“Vindicus…”

The giant sentinel wrapped his arms around me and flew up into the air.

“Never have I burned quite so hot, little Angel. I shall enjoy you properly.”

My Guardian tenderly laid me upon the giant feather bed. When I felt the whole of his weight pressed upon me, the touch of his bare flesh against mine, it was as if all was right with the world once more. The whole universe fell away. Our passion burned it down. We were the only two creatures that yet remained.

“So, this is what I missed during all those lonely years—”

His response was instantaneous, his growl deep and threatening… his sapphire eyes flashing with anger.

“You aremine! You cannot have missed my love for years. I have only known you for days.”

“No. No, I only meant… back when I spent years crying myself to sleep on this same bed in the training dome of Vanahirdem, I could’ve—”

“Stop!”

I felt his fury, his consuming jealousy. It ran wild within me. I matched his passionate thoughts.

“Do not pine about wishes of Vareilious within you or of Varick’s mouth upon yours every night. This is the moment you are to experienceme. Now is the time ofus, the only lover you were ever fated to have. You shall know no other. Do not destroy me by bringing a lost love into your mind while I am worshiping you, Little Fire. Worshipping you the way onlyIcan.”

“Apologies. I never meant it that way. Purge my careless words and know that we are bonded above all others of our kind. I cannot deny that I love you, Vindicus. You are now a large part of me. You can sense my feelings minus my words.”

He pressed deep inside me, moving against me in a way that caused me to moan, caused me to shudder. Vindicus looked down at me, smiling. I was fast losing control and he could sense it, could feel it even. I thought my heart would burst within my chest. Something was happening inside my trembling body, a swelling, mounting pressure, the release of which I knew full well would be epic.

I clung to him. His fathomless blue eyes remained fixed upon me, upon my face, his smile widening with every moan that escaped my lips. The rest of my thoughts fell away as a wave of euphoria swept over me. My cry heightened until it caught in my throat. He held my hips, pulling me against him, releasing a thunderous roar before collapsing back into my waiting arms, utterly spent.


Page 14

I couldn’t speak, words left me. My enchanting sapphire lover lay beside me, holding me in his angelic arms, intermittent tremors running the length of his beautiful form. Exhausted, we slept.

I have no idea how much time had passed when next I opened my eyes.

He was so flawlessly beautiful. I drank in the glory of his awesome form. Marveling in just how perfect this warrior truly was.He was created without equal, I thought.I wonder, what was his purpose? Why was he blessed above all his brethren?

I ran my fingers through his vibrant blue hair, new desire growing with each blessed touch.

“You take my breath away,” I whispered.

He didn’t open his eyes, but the corners of his mouth lifted slightly. I brushed my fingers lightly across his brow, down his jaw line to his chiseled chin.

“God painted you just for me, Angel. I promise, nay, I vow… I willneverleave you. From this moment forth, you will know no peace. I will be forever underfoot. You are mine. Never forget that, Warrior.” I kissed the tip of his nose. “I love you, Vindicus.”

His lips parted, displaying his brilliant, deadly smile.

“Do you feel that?” he whispered.

“Feel what? What is it, my love?”

But then Ididfeel something. My hand was burning. I realized this the same moment my Guardian’s sapphire eyes opened and he held his hand up before my face. It took a few more heartbeats before the intricate tattoo forming right in front of my eyes, would even register.

I slowly pulled my hand from beneath my resting head, holding it beside his. Together, we marveled at the beautifully matching bands magically encompassing our fingers.

“Witness now our destiny, little Fire Princess. Never have I belonged to another.” Vindicus looked as if he would cry—moist eyes wavering, lips pursed.

“But… I thoughtyouhad to place your manacle upon me. I thought you had to ask and I had to accept,” I wondered, aloud.

“That’s true,” he answered. “But, at least this way you didn’t get the chance to deny me.”

I smiled, blissfully happy. “As if denying you were even a possibility.”

“Unless the unioncannotbe denied… because it is ordained.”

The sorrowfully pained voice coming from the doorway caused me to release a tiny yelp.

“Vybius, old friend, how long have you been spying on us?” Vindicus said, smiling lazily.

“Ahh, Brother, you felt me approach only a moment ago. I waited, delayed my arrival.”

I sat up, looking at the amethyst-eyed man who had cared for me, held me while I was lost in the void, spoke my soul back to this realm, and had confessed his devotion for me this same day. Those enchanting eyes were moist with painful tears. My joyous heart sank a bit at the sight of him.

I was suddenly painfully aware of just how naked Vindicus and I were—laying there, limbs still entwined. I jumped up and instinctively went to the familiar closet, slipped on a robe, and tossed a coverlet to my new husband.

“Apologies. I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Vybius said, his voice sounding so tiny, his head bowed. “When Viatrix envisioned yourbonding, I could not come. My wings were weighted down with pain.” He paused, taking a shaky breath. “But when she saw your union without the exchanging of manacles, well, I had to seethatwith my own eyes. I have only ever read about it in our most ancient accords.”

I looked back down at my freshly tattooed finger, new love filled me. I couldn’t have stopped my smile even if I’d wanted to. I looked to my beautiful new husband, who mirrored my expression perfectly.

“I have never known such a feeling,” I whispered. “I’ve never felt quite so complete. I’m looking at the world through brand-new eyes, and it is a glorious sight to behold.”

Not even the pain clearly displayed upon Vybius’s lovely face could dissuade my happiness.

“Your words ring more true then you realize, my love,” Vindicus said.

“Yes, he speaks a truth you have not yet comprehended, oh beautiful one. I will always give thanks I was blessed enough to witness your enchantingly magical rebirth. It tears at my soul,” Vybius said. “But I would rather sacrifice my eyes than to have been denied seeing your miracle first hand.”

“Why do you tease me at such a time? Do you wish me to blush more than I already am?”

“Ahh, tiny Angel, your rosy cheeks are lovely and innocent.” Vindicus smiled as he spoke. “But what my brother says is not in jest. Look, my love.”

He turned me toward the giant beveled mirror matching the one I once stood in front of in Vanahirdem as I stared at my blackened eyes and emaciated form. Today though, the looking glass displayed an astonishingly different picture of who I was… and of who I was becoming.

There, before my eyes, my fair skin was fading ever paler, as marbled stone. My beautiful golden curls—that had gotten me into as much trouble as they’d gotten me out of—were changing as well.

“What is it? What’s happening to me?”

“You are being reborn, remade,” Vindicus whispered. “You are displaying on the outside what was made new within.”

Vybius approached me. “More than that, my love, you are becoming the Angel you were always meant to be.”

I looked back to my reflection, anxiously watching. My skin slowly took on a faint effervescent glow and many of my long, loose curls changed to varying shades of vibrant pink.

I gasped. “…Wow.”

“Wow is right. I would not have thought it possible, Anicee, but you are becoming even more beautiful than imaginable.”

“Oh, stop it, Vindicus.” I blushed brightly, pretending to push away his loving arms.

“Your husband does not jest, lovely Angel. Your radiance causes my tongue to go dumb within my mouth. There are no words befitting your ethereal description. Your beautiful new markings surpass all within this realm… or any realm I have ever known.”

“I can never live up to those words, Vybius, you go too far. You are both unduly prejudice in my regard.”

I looked at my dear friend, tears spilling forth down his angelic cheeks. Taking his magical hand in mine, I pulled him close to me, wrapping one arm around his thin waist. Vindicus growled. I elbowed him.

The three of us watched as half my curls turned the most alluring shades of pink I had ever seen. Perhaps you would name them fuchsia or magenta, I wasn’t certain. My skin paled and pulsed until it perfectly matched the ethereal creatures standing with me.

“But look at your eyes,” Vybius whispered.

I focused then upon the strange pink and azure orbs staring back at me. I leaned closer. They reminded me of Alzeen’s. His were a vibrant green with rusty golden flames encircling them. Mine were the same pink as my new curls, encompassed about with as glorious and bright a sapphire as my angelic husband’s eyes boasted.

“You got the blue from me,” he whispered.

“…Wow,” was all I could manage to say.

Chapter 19

Jenevier

(ZHEN-ah-veer)

 

 

 

Okay, dear Reader, you’re probably at the point where you’re saying, “What in the hell is going on?”

Well, basically, I was stressing over watching what went on in my life while I was absent from it—roaming the eighth layer. So I went into the temple just to calm my nerves. All Iactuallyaccomplished was remembering my lost husband, Varick, and how much I truly loved and missed him.

So… I started my own little pity party and it quickly turned into a self-destructive downward spiral. Then to help me out with reality and keep me from stressing over the terrifying unknown, God let me in on a little dose of my own reality. I couldn’t handle it. I took it to the dark side, so to speak. I blamed everyone and everything for my bad luck. I hosted one great big giant poor-poor-pitiful-me-party and drank all the spiked punch I could swallow.

Basically, I snapped, in abigway. And what did I do? I took it out on God and on my new friends. Neither of which hadanypart to play in this little fiasco that was my life. Yet, that is what we very flawed humans do. We take it all out on the people who care about us the most, the oneswecare about the most. Why do we do that?Why did I do that? Simple, I felt sorry for myself. I was in pain so I lashed out. No excuses. It was probably the second worst thing I have ever done. I’m still so ashamed.

If you learn nothing else from all the horrible mistakes I’ve recorded here, please, walk away from this book determined not to harm the people who love you. No matter how bad your day has been, no matter how horrible you think life has treated you… hurt not the innocent. Harm none.

What I ended up accomplishing was this. I hurt a bunch of people who didn’t deserve it. I completely destroyed myself. I literally cracked. I broke a dear friend’s heart and I physically tore apart the face of the man destined to be mine. But in spite of all this, God used my self-destruction to heal me, to make me better than I was.

You see, we all have flaws, everyone does, even the Vanir. It doesn’t matter how attractive, smart, funny, strong, or young you are… you’renotperfect. I was so horribly flawed on theinside, it’s like I was walking around just waiting for one more thing to happen. It really didn’t matter how big or how little that one thing was, it would completely shatter the fragile glass figurine that wasJenevier.

But sometimes that’s just what has to take place. We have to hit rock bottom before we’re humbled enough to let God fix what needs to be fixed, change what needs to be changed.

So, that’s what happened. I broke and God fixed me. Simple as that.

The odd twist that provoked myphysicalchanging has two parts, I believe. No one can tell me for sure. First, I broke someone else too, my dear friend, Vindicus. Because of me, he had to be fixed as well. So we werefixedtogether. And we sort of… blended.

The people living on layer eight have something they call DNA. It’s the stuff they’re made of. So if you can imagine taking two layer eight’s DNA, pouring them together into a big pot of healing water, and stirring it just a little, that’s what happened to me and Vindicus.

The second part of mytwistwas my destiny… it changed. I’m not sure if the destiny change was part of my punishment or part of something bigger. Like when I became Vashti, I couldn’t return to Ashgard because I wasn’t just Jenevier anymore. My home no longer fit me. Now that I’m another new creature, Vanahirdem no longer fits because I’m not just Jenevier and I’m not just Vashti. Not anymore.

As for being Vanir, I’m having a real hard time figuring out how to explain this sensation. Imagine you were eating your favorite food, then someone flips your taste buds on. You had no idea your taste buds were off in the first place. You already loved the way your delicious treat tasted. But then in a heartbeat, everything about it was magnified. What you thought was delicious before, now suddenly explodes with such flavor your knees tremble. Well, that’s pretty much the difference in being human and being Vanir. Everything tastes better, everything looks sharper, every emotion is felt deeper, and every bond is so much stronger. The Vanir experience all the same things humans do, but their senses are heightened. Their appreciation of each experience is cherished, nurtured. I guess you could say the Vanir holdallthings precious, appreciating life to the fullest.

Yet, there is always a bitter pill to be swallowed when drastic, unexpected changes occur.

And me? Well, I had a double dose. My bitter pills were Varick and Vybius.

Varick goes without saying. Actually, the pain is still so great, even mentioning it leaves cracks in my fragile soul. He loved me since before I was born, protected me the whole of my life. Never had I felt such a bond as the one we shared. Not just because part of me was made from him. I loved him because he first loved me. He showed me how wonderful it was to love and be loved. Varick and Alzeen, together, made up the exquisite being that completed Jenevier, made her whole, gave her strength, helped her become the creature she was.

But I was no longerjustJenevier. She would always be my base self, I suppose. But now that the shell of Jenevier had been filled with a whole new person, mixed with a whole new Angel, I was irrecoverably changed. And Varick? Well, he now loved another. He had a new Anicee. He would be fine without me.

My second bitter pill was Vybius. Now, I’ve told you before how my first look into Vybius’s mesmerizing eyes had made me weak. Not to mention the glances I stole at his perfect body when I thought he wasn’t aware. These warm feelings were only compounded by his tender, loving actions toward me.

This rare Guardian went without food or rest for days while I was lost in the darkness, holding constant vigil at my side. His voice alone brought me back from the void place. My fondness and appreciation only grew for him when he gently bathed and prepared me for the council meeting. And I very nearly loved him when he looked into my soul. Well, after my anger subsided and I realized this man saw every hidden secret, every dark thought within my heart, and it only made him care all the more. That thought alone gave him an honored place in my heart as my true blood brother. Because family, well, they accept us… no matter what, most times.

Ugh… I get so frustrated with this language sometimes. It’s a pitiful one when it comes to describing love. There are as many shades of love as there are shades of hate. Love doesn’t always meanlove. Sometimes it means more, sometimes less. An ancient people on layer eight wrote much about love. But their tongue doesn’t flow well with mine and proves rather hard to translate. For instance, they had at least four different ways to describe their varying affections. Agápe was the word they used when they were talking about an infinite, unconditional, spiritual, unrequitedfeastof love. Which was much different than the natural affection you feel for blood kin—storgē… sort of along the lines ofblood’s thicker than water. You love them because they’re family, doesn’t always mean that you like them though. Erōs is that passionate, erotic, physical, sexual kind of love you share with your partner. And then philía is the loyal, affectionate, devoted love you have for your friends.

Looking back on Vybius, I knew the very moment I actually felt pangs of a growing, morphing kind oflovefor this most beautiful heavenly sentinel. It was when he sat down in the floor in the middle of that crowded chamber hall—unashamed, caring only for my comfort—and gently patted the spot next to him. I knew instantly he loved me and that he would always protect me, even to his own shame or detriment. I did love him for that.

I was grieved by this knowledge. Grieved by the loss of something spectacular that had only just started between us, but wasn’t allowed to grow… not given enough time to flourish.

Alas, this is a new day, a new beginning in my life.

I would always bitterly mourn the loss of Varick, of my Alzeen, and of the part of me that would ever hold him dear. But my change was now complete. I wasmorethan I had been. The naïve little girlheknew, the one that giggled and blushed and played, the one he treasured in his noble heart… she was gone.

Ugh… I hate regret. It ranks right at the top of my bitter pill list.

But I also knew, beyond everything else in the world, I loved Vindicus. Please, don’t expect further explanation, I have not the proper words. He isinme, a part of me. Loving him is as natural as breathing, as comfortable as bare feet in the sand. How do you explain something like that? You can’t. You have to experience it.

Know this. Being of like-mind with another person and then removing any and all societal deemed boundaries; you can freely love with a passion that cannot be controlled or defined. It is gloriously terrifying. Just feeling his every emotion was gloriously terrifying. We orbited one another, unconsciously reacted to the other, answered unspoken words between us. We were the couple that made everyone else around us uncomfortable. When he moved, I moved. When he laughed for no reason,Iwas the reason. We lived inside each other, inside our connected minds. Our bodies danced about, going through the necessary motions of life—physical proof of our existence. Yet we livedinsideourselves. We were our own world.

Ultimate trust—have you ever truly thought about it? No, probably not. Most people haven’t experienced such a thing since they were a babe in their mother’s loving arms. It will never cross a child’s innocent mind that harm will come to them via their gentle mother. Now, as an adult, place that kind of ultimate trust in another being. No reservations, no limits. Can you even fathom doing such a thing? We are, by our very nature, flawed. How can you place complete trust in a flawed creature?

You tell me, Reader. Is that not a terrifying thought?

Well, it’s even more so when you act upon it. When you actuallyliveit, daily.


Page 15

Chapter 20

Viatrix

(VEE-ah-tricks)

 

 

 

After less than a week of my arrival, I was being prepared for my own wedding ceremony. Viatrix was explaining all this ancient ritual would entail.

I’d never witnessed a wedding in Vanahirdem. Mine to Varick would’ve been my first experience. In Ashgard, this joining of souls would’ve very much resembled the Life Celebration back in Tamar Broden.

Now that I’m standing here in front of the enchanting Viatrix, her tinkling voice is fading as my mind whisks me back to my own personal experiences with these customs and rituals, societal expectations, necessary traditions.

Aunt Marlise’s Life Celebration had turned into the end of my normal life as I knew it. My wedding day to the noble Vanir warrior, Prince Varick, had ultimately become the day of my execution.

The two most terrifying moments in my life were directly associated with the very thing my dear friend stood before me now explaining in painful detail—custom and ritual.

Damn them both.

“Jenevier? Jenevier? Are you listening, child?” Viatrix’s voice rose. “Jenevier? What’s wrong?”

I felt her hands upon me as my eyelids fluttered. Only then did I realize I was absent breath, my racing heart skipping precious beats. My knees buckled, everything went black for an instant.

“I can’t do this…” I heard my mumbled words blending with the concerned voices of Viatrix and my beloved Vindicus.

My eyes finally focused on his angelic face.

“You scared me halfway to my death, little lady,” he was saying.

“I know not what happened,” Viatrix fretted. “We were talking about your upcoming nuptials. Her eyes rolled back and—”

“Do not forget the implications associated with this child’s concept of customary protocols and divine rituals.” Vybius interrupted the radiant woman’s account of my current state. “Her reality concerning such affairs is morbidly skewed,” he said. “These things have never brought her happiness.” He then leveled a cold glare at my blue Guardian.

“Nay, the opposite, in fact,” Vindicus said coolly. “And do not forget, Brother. While you may be able to read her troubled soul, I alone share it with her. Not a single emotion is hidden from me. I’m the only protection she will ever require.”

Viatrix looked from one celestial sentinel to the other. “Is there contention?” she asked. “Why do brothers speak thusly to one another? Why do you war? And don’t try to hide the truth of it from me,” she warned.

“There is no war, fair seer,” Vybius said. “My brother and I merely have related intentions toward this lovely young maiden.”

Vindicus snorted. “Brother, do you think her feelings for you are hidden from my heart? She loved you from the first moment. Whether she admits it or no, she loved you. But it will never compare to what is eternally betweenus. No matter how much you wish it to be so.”

“Please stop,” I whispered.

Vindicus helped me up as Viatrix placed a glass of water in my trembling hands.

“I am not the woman I once was. No longer am I the fragile little girl you all witnessed losing control of her heart and mask back in Vanahirdem. I will not pit brother against brother.” I looked then to the beautiful man whose heart I’d broken. “I will always love you, Vybius. And I will be forever grateful for your kindness and gentle love in return. But I belong to Vindicus, and he to me. Eternity won’t change that.”

“No, sweet Princess, you’re not the woman you once were. You are far lovelier, stronger, and more enchanting than she could ever possibly have imagined.” Vybius smiled at me as he turned and left.

“He speaks the truth,” Viatrix whispered. “Now, tell me what makes you tremble so.”

“The thought of being forever in my glorious presence has caused many a maiden to swoon thusly,” Vindicus purred.

I couldn’t help but giggle. Oh God, I loved this man ferociously.

“See the effect you have upon me, great warrior? How shall I ever be able to adapt my simple common self to be worthy your divine awesomeness?” I bit my lip, playfully batting my lashes. “Complete acclimation simply isn’t possible, a futile pursuit, folly at best. I cannot hope to rise even as high as you kneel. And you look exquisite kneeling, by the way.” I gave him my best smirk.

“Okay, enough now, fated lovers,” Viatrix said. “Tell me truly. What vexes you so, Jenevier?”

I looked into her worried eyes. She held my hands, smiling sweet encouragement upon me.

“My black curse and my execution,” I answered honestly.

“Ah, yes.” She nodded. “How could I have been so blind? Apologies, my friend. You carry a daunting past. But you are gloriously and wonderfully remade. Without reservation I tell you now. In ten thousand years, never have I met one such as you.”

“Nor have I,” Vindicus whispered.

“Take heart, child. You are already wed to this pious oaf holding you in his arms. The ritual won’t change that.”

“That’s not my fear,” I admitted.

“Then give words to your worries and see them forever banished,” Viatrix promised.

“…I am absent those very words.”

“Her fear comes not from the present, but from the recollected ghosts of her past,” Vindicus answered.

“Are you my tongue now, dear husband?”

“Only when yours falters, my love.” His tender lips erased any lingering doubts, soothed my mind and filled me with the strength I lacked.

“I love you, Vindicus.”

“And I you, tiny Angel.”

“Well now, since that’s all been settled, shall we continue?” Viatrix chirped.

“Apologies,” I said.

“Not necessary.” She waved my words away as she continued. “You are already bonded in the only way that truly matters. This ritual is simply a way for your friends to celebrate the joys of your love with you.”

“How is it you seem to always know exactly what to say, dear sister?” Vindicus asked.

“Ahh, Brother, a woman cannot shareallher mysteries lest she lose her charms.” She winked at me.

“So… all I have to do is meet my husband in the temple in front of my friends?”

“Well there’s a bit more to it, but… that’s the summation of it, yes.”

“A bit more? How much is a bit?”

Viatrix laughed. “Our customs are simple compared to many you may have observed throughout the layers. As I said before, you’re not only joining with our handsome brother here, you’re joining ourfamilyas well. Your acceptance by your new brothers and sisters will be the main focus of this lovely ritual.” Her exquisite orange eyes glassed over with precious tears. She gently touched my Guardian’s arm as she whispered, “I never thought the day would come… never believed it was possible… never held out hope for…” Her shaking words choked off in her tightening throat.

“Nor did I,” Vindicus whispered. “Perhaps my punishment comes to an end. I never held out hope for a blessing ofanykind, much less one such as her.”

I patted my husband’s hand. “I’m not as wonderful as all that, truly. I fear you’ll come to know soon enough just how exasperating I can be.”

“Little sister,” Viatrix said. “You simply have no idea the miracle that has happened here this day. And I have not the proper words to explain it.”

“Explanations aren’t necessary,” Vindicus said as he gave me a little squeeze.

“Tell me, Viatrix. How will our family’s acceptance be the focus of our public union?” I was sensing she was trying to lessen the sting of something she did not relish telling me. Putting off what she didn’t wish to say.

The elegant seer cleared her throat, discreetly wiped her eyes. “Well, to start with, your dress.”

“My dress?”

“Yes. The most important part of your joining will be the dress you’re wearing when you finally reach good Vindicus here.”

He smiled affectionately down at me, giving me another little squeeze.

“When I reach him? Sister, why do you speak to me in riddles? What is it you’renotsaying?”

“She doesn’t wish to worry you, my love. Yet, I believe she stresses over nothing. Truth is, your dress will change upon your journey through the city, based on the people’s acceptance of you.”

“What? You mean I have to change my clothes if they accept me?”

“Not clothes, child—dress,” Viatrix said.

“Okay, so I have to change my dress based on whether the rest of the city likes me or not?”

“You won’t change your dress, tiny Angel,” Vindicus said. “Your dress will change on your journey.”

“Are you both plotting to drive me mad? Why can you not simply answer me?”

“We’re not plotting,” Viatrix said. “It’s actually quite simple. You will wear a lovely white shift, charming and elegant, fitted to your exact size. As you make your way to the ceremony all Vanir will be present, lining the street, bordering your chosen path…” She paused, nervously searching my expression.

“What Viatrix is trying to tell youwithouttelling you, is that our traditional ceremony calls for you, the bride, to pass by all Vanir. If they approve of you joining our family here in Vandermil, they will pin a ribbon of their own design onto your shift. Thus, your dress may change on the way to the temple.”

“Maychange?”

“Well, yes,” Viatrix explained. “If they accept you, then your shift will be covered with many colorful ribbons. It will become a uniquely beautiful wedding dress by the time you reach the altar.”

“Ifthey accept me? Why wouldn’t they accept me?”

“Well, my darling, you did threaten to gut them in their sleep,” he reminded me.

“Oh yes… I did do that, didn’t I?”

“All will be fine, child. It really doesn’t matter to Vindicus what your dress looks like. He lovesyouand that’s all that truly matters.”

“No, Viatrix, it’s not all that truly matters to my extended family Vanir. It will take many lifetimes for me to heal all the damage I have caused in such a short while. As for my wedding shift, I don’t care if I have to walk to the cathedral completely nude, absent dress entirely, as long as Vindicus accepts me. That’s all I want.”

“Completely nude? Wow, imagine what would happen if we all dressed to match.” He winked, smiling mischievously.

Viatrix laughed. “I’m glad you feel that way, my dear. I was afraid you would be terribly hurt if you were shamed on such a momentous day.”

“I will not lie to you and tell you it won’t hurt me terribly if my shift remainsribbonless. I deserve it. I know that. Yet I will proudly bear my shame if it means I can stand with the man I love, declaring our eternal union to all of Vandermil.”

“Will you marry me?”

I turned to find Vindicus kneeling beside me, a smile on his face, tears in his eyes.

“I didn’t get to ask you before, it happened minus our words. I wanted to ask you properly because… you take my breath away and I love you, beautiful Angel.”

My smile couldn’t be contained, and I never wished it to be. I jumped into his strong arms, kissing him over and over.

“So, I presume this is ayes,” he moaned.

Viatrix left us then, and I’m very glad she did.

 

*****

 

His attention was, as always, worshipful. Never had I felt so delicate, so precious, as I did when Vindicus held me in his gentle arms. He consumes me, melts me. I can’t get enough of this man. Never am I content. The more I have him, the more I desire him. His overwhelming love will be my undoing, and I revel in that glorious notion.

He is my Ambrosia, my Turkish Delight.That thought made me giggle. My mind drifted back to the many wonderful books I’d abandoned back on Earth. I sighed.

“Do I bore you, dearest Anicee?”

“You know better than that, sapphire boy.” I tapped the tip of his nose.

“Boy, is it?” He scooped me up in his arms. “Shall I find you a man, or will thisboysuffice?”

I giggled. “Apologies, Milord. If you are a boy, I shouldn’t be able to handle a man. You own me, Vindicus, own me in a way I never thought possible, never even imagined.” I gently traced my fingertips down his sculpted cheek, stared deep into his perfect sapphire eyes. “I cannot breathe when you leave the room. When you’re removed from my sight, even for a moment, a giant gaping hole opens up right through the middle of me. How is this possible, my love? How can one soul’s very existence depend so heavily upon another?”

“We are joined, Anicee. Never will we be whole without the other. I feel as you do, sense your every emotion, your every thought, every desire. We are one.”

He kissed me once more, tenderly capturing my lips.


Page 16

“It’s an unexplainable joy,” I whispered. “An awesomeness that cannot be described, not properly. And yet, in the same breath, it’s terrifying beyond all comprehension.”

“Yes, the need to be whole, the need to keepyouwhole and safe, will always rule my being, always.” He gently ran the tip of his finger out the length of my collar bone. “You are my hallelujah, Anicee, my amen, myeverything.”

The tears came, unbidden.How can I love so hard, so completely, so utterly intense? I wish to devour him. I wish him to remain within me, always. The universe can fall away, yet leave me this man, this incredibly magnificent man.

“Jenevier, my love, I have something for you.”

I smiled softly, still basking in the amazing afterglow of our unmatched love. “Mmm… Is it a surprise?”

He brushed my curls back. I felt a slight weight about my neck an instant before he kissed me there.

“Your collar, Milady,” he whispered against my tingling skin.

“Collar?” I snorted out a sardonic laugh.

“No. No, that’s the wrong word.”

I reached up, fingering the cool gem as it lay flush against my warm skin. “Do you wish to collar me? Am I to be your caged pet?” I playfully winked.

His gorgeous smirk returned, erasing the confused look he had been wearing while searching for the rightword. “You are most definitely my pet, Anicee.” He chuckled softly near my ear. “Yet I fear evenIam not capable of caging you.”

“It’s a choker.” I kissed his sculpted cheek and reluctantly crawled from the warm bed.

“What? Choke her?”

I was admiring the vibrant blue sparkle, made even more radiant back dropped by my ethereal skin. Turning from the looking glass, I cast him a tender smile over my shoulder. “Thewordyou were looking for… it’schoker.”

“Well, that’s a rather violent sounding word. I likecollarbetter. I do not wish tochokeyou.”

I giggled, my gaze remaining fixed on the lovely necklace my husband had just gifted me. I felt the coming tears burning the backs of my eyes.

Vindicus slid his strong arms around my waist, pulling me back against his warm chest. “That’smystone you wear about your delicate little neck, beautiful Angel.” His tickling whisper left my ear as he bent to kiss my bared shoulder. “Never has it glowed as radiantly as when wrapped about your lovely throat. It is stunning.”

I sniffed. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” I placed my hands over his about my waist. “I shall treasure it always. I love you, Vindicus.”

“I knewthatminus your words, Anicee. We are one, you and I. And… I love you more.” He quickly snatched me up in his arms, falling back onto the bed.

My excited giggles filled our happy little home, that is, until they were cut off by his melting kiss.

I completely lost myself in this incredible man. He was my whole world.

This… this was truebliss.

Chapter 21

Valencia

(vah-LIN-cee-ah)

 

 

 

The door slammed and I jumped.

My charming Vindicus had gone to see to the final preparations for our wedding and Viatrix was retrieving my ritual shift. I was terrified—thrilled beyond containing it—so I was brushing my hair, busying my hands to calm my nerves.

“Vindicus, is that you, my love?”

A strange voice answered me. “There you are. I’ve been lookingeverywherefor you. How in the hell did you get in— Ahh… By all that’s holy…”

I didn’t know the tinkling angelic voice, yet something about it tugged at the recesses of my mind.

“What… have… you… done?”

I turned from the looking glass to find the lovely, impatient Vanir lady who had winged me here from my eighth layer purgatory.

I smiled. “Thereyouare. I was wondering where in the Otherworld you’d disappeared to. I haven’t seen you for days. Did you come back for the wedding?”

The angelic woman froze in her steps and very nearly swayed. I quickly stood, poised to catch her. Regaining her composure, she glared at me, astonished.

“Days? Wedding?” Her voice was oddly disconnected, trance-like.

I smiled, nodding my affirmation to her halting questions.

“You stupid little… Jenevier, you’ve been here onlyhours. Wha-what have you done?”

Her disbelieving words turned to venomous accusations. She cautiously approached me, moving one foot purposely in front of the next, inching closer.

“I have been searching everywhere for you. Why didn’t you stay put as I told you to?”

I laughed, flippantly. “Hours? Have you gone mad, Angel? Have you lost your wits upon your journey? Besides, I’m exactly where you left me. Istayed put.”

The confused woman with the silver hair hurriedly closed the gap between us, roughly placing her giant hands on my shoulders. She looked deep into my eyes for one long, disquieting moment, seeking a truth I was not hiding. Then, she did the strangest thing. She licked my neck. Never had a woman Vanir shown me she had such ability. The sensation brought back vivid memories of my first day in Vanahirdem with Vareilious. She tasted me, rolled my scent around in her mouth, then sniffed the air about my face.

My heart lurched within my chest when that familiar guttural growl formed in her throat.

“Tell me all that’s happened since your arrival,” she rasped. “Leave out nothing, no matter how small.”

Terrified and confused, I spilled forth the story of my past week with minute detail. “When first we arrived and you welcomed me to Vandermil—”

“Vandermil? I did no such thing! You are as you have always been, Jenevier, intentionally ignorant. There’s no such place as Vandermil. Didn’t you complete your studies as part of your training? I carried you to the Nether, the waiting place. You strolled into this realm all on your own. You obviously weren’t coerced and you most certainly cannot beforced. Your feet led you here. Freely you entered this place. And by the look of things, I should just leave you here. If they weren’t all waiting for you, I would.”

My stomach was already turning in on itself. Weakening knees forced me back upon my gilded stool. Turning to the mirror, I caught my ethereal interrogator’s reflection within the looking glass. Pure horror was painted across her majestic features. I couldn’t force myself to turn again, too scared to face her proper. Continuing my recitation with my back to the stranger, I only glanced up occasionally to see her stricken image. She remained deathly silent.

“When I arrived, Vindicus, the Gate Guardian, was first to greet me. Soon after, I met Vybius. He brought me here, the exact twin to my home in Vanahirdem. Then something happened to me. I passed out I guess, I’m not sure. Anyway, Vybius found me and took care of me, whispered me back from the void place. He spent days upon the task.”

“Tell me what this Vybius looks like to you,” she demanded.

“Well, he’s beautiful, like Varick. But where Varick is golden, here in front.” I touched my own hair by way of explanation. “Vybius is amethyst. Oh, and the same with his eyes. Yet Vybius’s pupils are bright silver and they flash sometimes. Like when he’s reading my soul.”

“Go on.”

“Well, I woke just in time for their council meeting. I met many wonderful Vanir there. Everyone was very curious as to what had befallen me and my life. Vybius was kind enough to use his magic orb thingy to replay every moment—from when I first received my curse, right on up to my execution.”

“He replayed your life? To you only?”

“No. The whole of Vandermil watched.”

“I see… Go on.”

“So, the next day Vybius was going to show me what happened to everyone else back home, in Ashgard and Vanahirdem, while I was in exile.”

She smirked knowingly, crossing her arms over her chest. “Let me guess, he couldn’t show you anything. His orb was broken or he was too tired or he was called away suddenly.”

“No, none of those things… albeit strange of you to say thus. It just never got to happen, never got to be.”

“What do you mean? What happened instead?”

“Actually, this is the embarrassing part. I’m afraid it was entirely my fault. You see, I was extremely nervous about seeing how everyone had gone on with their lives, how they’d continued on without me. Vybius tried his best to lend me comfort—”

“Did he bed you?” she interrupted.

“No. Goodness, no. He only held me and tried to reassure me. Anyway, I begged his leave, deciding to go to the temple and pray for strength.”

“The temple?”

I turned to face her then. She couldn’t possibly be any more confused than I was at this moment.

“Surely you know of the temple, Angel. In the center of the city? Don’t try to feign ignorance. Have you never been to Vanahirdem? Vandermil is the mirror image. Have you not noticed?”

“Do not name me Angel.” Her eyes blazed. “Again I say, there is noVandermil.And no, I haven’t noticed. Is that the way it looks to you?”

“Of course it does. How can you not see? Well, I mean the Vanir here have colored hair to match their affinities, their wings are ebony instead of white, and the streets aren’t crystal but paved with every color gem imaginable. Other than that, it’s the absolute twin to my old ethereal home. You, my friend, are the only one who dons the familiar silver locks of Vanahirdem.”

“Is that so? Then tell me. What happened when you went to pray? Did God speak to you?”

“Well, in a manner of speaking, yes. Yes, He did speak to me. Just not in words like we exchange now.”

“Tell me every single word youthoughtHe said,” she demanded.

I took a deep breath. “When I finally sat upon the mercy seat, I didn’t actually get to pray. I was overcome with self-pity, drowning in my own doubt. I cried and cried until exhaustion claimed me, then I slept. That’s when God sent my spirit a sort of vision. I left this place and went to Vanahirdem, but it was deserted. I heard Valadrog’s booming voice coming from the heart of the city. I raced to him. Everyone was gathered in one accord within the great hall. And that’s when I saw…” I paused.

“When you saw what? Tell me,” she coaxed.

“When I saw my own husband… marrying another,” I whispered.

“Marrying? Varick? Is that what you saw? Truly?”

“Yes!” I spat out the word through my tears. “He and hisintendedwere lavishly robed, kneeling on the steps before Valadrog and Vareen. Vareilious was there as witness, holding Vinika’s hand. Don’t look at me like that! I knowwhatI saw and I knowwhoit was… Varick. He turned those golden eyes I loved so much toward me. Even seemed toseeme standing there.”

“So… itwasyou,” she whispered.

“Of course it was me!”

“What happened next?”

I closed my eyes, trying to hide from the painful memory I was forever cursed with. “What happened next? Huh, that one’s easy. What happened next was my own annihilation, my very death. That’s what I wished to happen, what I begged for. In truth, I lost it. I just screamed. The pain ripped my soul to pieces.” My voice began to quiver, making my words sound liquidy, like I was singing through water. “Thankfully, a great wind brought me back to my body here in the temple.”

“Go on,” she coaxed.

“Like I said, I lost it. I’m so ashamed at my horrid behavior towards these noble people. I turned my back on the comfort God was trying to impart upon me, stormed through the holy doors—defiant, filled with blackest rage. I was destroyed. I forgot everything Vareilious taught me. I screamed at Vybius as if I were a mad woman—feral, minus civility completely. And then when barred by Vindicus, I attacked him.”

“Did you change?”

“Change?”

“Did you change into Vashti?”

“Vashti? No, of course not. My mask has been taken from me. No, I fought him as myself.”

“Indeed. So, he beat you severely.”

“No. He broke my ribs when he threw me against the steps.” I sighed. “I’m glad I was so distracted by seeing Varick’s eyes over and over in my mind or I might’ve killed him. I crushed many of his bones, tore chunks of flesh from his face… before he finally grabbed my hair, pinning me to him, holding still my arms. I’ll never be able to forgive myself for doing such harm. I threatened all of them with death, the entire city, while they slept, no less.”

“So what happened once Vindicus subdued you?”

“Vybius bade him take me to the dome, told him to wash me in the healing waters. I begged him not to. I begged Vindicus to break my neck, free me from the pain of my broken heart, release my shattered soul. I explained to him I was nothing but an empty vessel, devoid of everything except self-hate. He didn’t heed my cries, yet together, he immersed us both in those waters…” I didn’t think I could continue reliving the nightmare, recalling the harm I’d wrought on the one I now love. I took a deep breath.

“Go on, Jenevier. What happened within the waters?”

“I was remade.” I opened my eyes then, met her questioning gaze.

“Remade? What do you mean? Tell me exactly.”

“As I said, I was an empty vessel. I could feel my physical body healing. And then, I was filled up with tiny threads of life until my empty vessel was made whole once more.”

“What do you mean,threads?

“I know not how to explain it properly. It was like I waswovenback together. Mostly it was threads of myself. But then threads of Vindicus mixed in with mine, and mine with him. It was glorious. Never have I felt so alive. Everything was clearer, sharper, more passionate. I knew with splendid certainty God had healed metogetherwith Vindicus… and Vindicus knew it as well. Then everything seemed to happen in fast-forward. We loved each other, how could we not? We desired each other. We were part of each other.”

“So… you lay with this Vindicus?”

“Oh yes, and it was… it was… unimaginably perfect. And that’s whenthishappened.” I held up my hand to show her my binding tattoo.

She gasped. “By all that’s holy…”

“He didn’t even have to ask me. It just happened. Like it was… ordained or something.”

“So you married him?”

“Yes, but not by custom’s law, at least not yet. Vybius said God had joined us together because it was His will. Viatrix has gone to procure my ceremonial shift as we speak. The ritual will be in a few hours. Anyway, once the manacles were exchanged, that’s when this happened.” I made a motion to encompass my new hair and skin.

“I cannot believe this. How can any one human be so naïve, so hopelessly stupid?” she yelled. “Jenevier, you ignorant little brat, I left you in the Nether and—”

“Welcome, fair Valencia. So very glad you could make it back in time for the nuptials,” Vybius said as he quietly entered the room.

The silver-haired Vanir rose cautiously at his greeting.

Valencia? Where do I know that name? Valencia? Who… Who was it? Where have I… No… Valadrog’s daughter.

“Valencia? You mean, you’re—”

“Yes, my sweet Jenevier.” Vybius smirked, keeping his gaze locked with hers. “This is Valadrog’s long lost daughter. Varick’s little sister, back from the dead.”


Page 17

Chapter 22

Ahriman

(ARR-ee-mon)

 

 

 

Everything happened so fast, it’s as a blur.

I was still trying to assimilate this new revelation. I was thrilled with the knowledge that Vareen’s daughter was alive and here with me. I wished only to see the look upon her face when she heard the news. Then I noticed my two friends were faced off against one another. The scene wouldn’t click together in my head.

“What’s going on? I don’t understand. Why take up opposition? Are you not brother and sister as well?”

“He’s not my brother,” Valencia snapped. “Look at him, Jenevier. Can you not see him?”

“Of course I can see him. He’s as beautiful and as ethereal as you and Varick and Vareilious. He’s the Angel who saved me from the void, held my hand, bathed me.”

“What have you done, Vybius?” she hissed.

“Valencia, my dear, it is as she says. I only nurtured her, took care of her when you thoughtlessly abandoned her upon the street.”

“Jenevier, think. Did you eat or drink anything from this man’s hand?”

“Yes, I did. Now that you mention it, he made me tea when I finally woke and breakfast the next morning. Yet… why haven’t I eaten since? How is it I’ve gone days with no thought of sustenance?”

While I was pondering her question and my subsequent answer, Valencia lunged at me, slapping me across the face. The unexpected blow sent me flying. I heard the two Vanir locked in combat as I rolled upon the floor, screaming from the searing pain running the length of my cheekbone. It felt as if acid had been put to my flesh. I heard a door slam. Giant hands pulled me to my feet.

“Get up, you fool. I cannot hold him for long. He’ll be back soon, with reinforcements. You must change now. I’ll need your help if we’re to get out of this with our lives and heads intact.”

I jerked free from Valencia and shoved her. “What’s wrong with you? You… you crazy Angel! Why did you strike me? And why did you attack one of the only beings who yet loves me, the only man who helped me?”

“Look around you, stupid girl,” she spat. “What do you seenow?”

I followed her waving hand, gasping when I saw my lovely room had vanished. In its place was a filthy cave full of muck and mire and stench.

“I-I don’t understand,” I mumbled.

“Thisis reality.Thisis what you saw when you fainted, when your mind went into the void. And the void is where you should’ve stayed. We could’ve found you there. I delivered you to the Nether, Jenevier. I had to make ready your arrival—confirm which realm I was to deliver you. You alone walked from that peaceful place, freely strolled right through the very gates of hell. Did you hear me? You’re inhell. These people are the fallen ones, dark Angels. Vybius’s real name is Ahriman, Angel of darkness, death, and destruction. His voice pulled you from the void and his drink made your eyes continue to see what they wanted to see. He wasn’t reading your soul, little girl, he waseatingit. They all were. I don’t know who else you’ve met, but your loving husband, I believe, is Apollyon.” She huffed out a sardonic chuckle. “Varick’s gonnalovethat,” she mumbled. “Apollyon is Angel Prince of the other regions, Minister of Death, Wreaker of Havoc, and Guardian of the bottomless pits of hell. And that, littlePrincess, is who you are to wed.Hisis the manacle you now wear in place of my brother’s.”

My breath gushed out at her words. I knew they were true, my new room proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt. I looked at my still marked finger, tears blurred my vision, rage pulsed through my veins.

“Least you stuck with royalty,” she sneered. “You’ve got a thing for Princes, huh?”

I glared at her. I think I hate her. My vision blurred, consciousness threatened to leave me. I may be standing in the middle of hell, but I had only just found my heaven… and it was all a lie. A strange numbness started at the tips of my fingers, spread up my arms, covering the whole of me.

“We cannot kill them. Not here. They are Angels and we are but Vanir. I’ve sent Vareen as strong an image as my abilities would allow. The best we can hope for now is to stay alive until we find a way to escape. I’m almost certain the portal is blocked by now—”

“How could you just leave me here?” I interrupted.

“What? What did you just say?” She turned on me, eyes flaming. “How dare you blame your ignorance on me? You’re so caught up in yourself and your little make-believe fairytale world, you refuse to see anything else. This fiasco, little lady, is your own doing. You never pay attention to what’s going on around you and you never have. That’s how you always seem to find yourself in trouble. You stroll along with blinders on, only to look up one day and realize you’re knee-deep in a pit of vipers. And anyone fool enough to follow you around, well, they get hurt as well. Your ignorance has wrought more pain than just your own.”

She was right. I knew she was right. I skipped into hell the exact same way I skipped through life, oblivious to everything truly important. I have only ever seen the beauty and the goodness, ignoring the bad and the ugly. I was in a world of my own making. I chose to see exactly what I wanted. Now… I would die for my naïve stupidity and take Vareen’s lovely daughter with me in the process.

“Nooo!” I screamed.

The change ripped through me as painful as the realization of what I had done. My chest heaved and Vashti’s fluid-filled muscles rippled with the watery smoke that was my angelic mask.

“Are you ready, then?” Valencia asked.

“I’ve neverbeenmore ready.” Venom dripped from my perfect lips.

“Control yourself, Angel. This isn’t about vengeance. Remember what my brother and Vareilious taught you. We’re to make our way to the portal, nothing more. We will have to fight our way through, but you willnothunt anyone down. Got it? The main objective is to get out alive. It won’t be easy. They’re much stronger since they’ve fed off your pure soul… none more so than Ahriman and Apollyon. They have your scent now. And if what you’ve told me is true, you and Apollyon share much more than that.”

She was right. I could feel him calling out to me, screaming my name throughout all hell and beyond. And all I truly wanted to do… was answer him.

“The portal is just past where you thought the temple was. If we get separated, head there and nowhere else. Got it?” She grabbed my shoulders, forcing me to focus on her ethereal blue eyes. “Jenevier, if I lose you, I will not waste time looking for you. Understand me? Just go to the portal.”

“I understand, Valencia. I’ll make it to the portal.” My voice sounded flat, minus all emotion, dead in my throat. “You just take care of yourself.”

She jerked the door open… and we stepped out into the pitch black darkness of hell.

Chapter 23

Apollyon

(ah-PAH-lee-ahn)

 

 

 

Gone were the jewel-encrusted streets. Gone was the vibrant sunlight. The only things left in this place were filth and screams.

I flexed my shoulders, letting my lethal wings spread out beside me.

“Let’s do this,” she whispered.

We headed toward the temple unabated. Valencia moved with the stealth of a lioness—darting from boulder to wall, always advancing. I felt their presence tingling within the tips of my razor-sharp wings before I actually saw their eyeless black pits—smelled their rot and decay.

We fought and slashed and annihilated demon after demon. All that crossed our bloody path fell before us. But these weren’t the Angels we feared.Theywere yet to come.

A volcanic mountain loomed before us. Valencia motioned for me to follow her around it, then darted further into the darkness. I looked to the peak of that rumbling fire pit and briefly tried to picture it as the ethereal temple I’d imagined it to be only hours ago.

If it was all in my imagination… how did I walk into a volcano and reemerge, unscathed?

“Ahh, but you weren’t unscathed, my love. You were utterly destroyed.”

I turned to find Apollyon gracefully leaning against a huge stone—smiling at me with the face of my beloved Vindicus.

“How is it I see you as mine Angel still?”

“Because, my love, Iamyour Angel. I will always be your Angel. The beauty of my world may’ve been an illusion, but my love was real,isreal. It remains as eternal and undying as the Angel whose heart it resides within.” He touched a spot on his flawless chest for emphasis. “Only you, my sensuous wife, have changed physically. And I must say. I’m just as pleased and aroused with this enticing angelic body as I am with your lovely human form.” He ran his tongue across those lethal teeth. “Promise me one day when all this is behind us, you’ll come to me as Vashti. Promise me you’ll love me always, no matter your form. Throughout the ages, Princess Anicee, never have I been so desirous of a woman. You stir me, Jenevier. You are mine and I can never let you part from my side. Your absence will destroy me, leave me shattered. You know I speak the truth. You feel as I do. We are a new creature now, a new being. Only together are we whole. How can you possibly leave me? How can one survive without the other? I won’t let you go.”

He lunged for me. I slashed him with a blow that would’ve left any man, Guardian, or demon lying upon the ground, rent in twain. The only thing to spill forth from this majestic creature was amused laughter.

I half sprinted, half flew around the burning mountain and ran headlong into the soul-eater.

“You have the nerve to appear before me as Vybius?” I yelled.

This time I didn’t hesitate. I tore at his flashing eyes, ripped at him with my deadly wings. Ahriman tried in vain to seize me. He failed but he did not retreat.

I could see the light from the portal, but between me and it laid a vast army of the Underworld. The Prince among them was to my back, and within my grasp was their beautiful soul-eating warrior. This was what I was trained for, what Vashti wasmadefor… fighting evil. Albeit perhaps not immortal evil, but evil nonetheless. I didn’t slow in my assault, gaining inch by precious inch.

Valencia was nowhere to be seen. I could only hope she’d managed to escape while I was stupidly listening to the lying tongue of my recently betrothed.

Vybius seized my wrists and pulled me against him. “You cannot kill me, foolish child. And there’s no way for you to escape. Give up this futile battle. Take your place by our Prince’s side. Or come to my bed, where youtrulybelong. Either way, you will be worshipped as a goddess.”

“Close your vile mouth, dog. I hate you above all creatures, living or dead,” I hissed. “You… Youfedfrom me! You dined upon my soul while you nursed me with sweet words and tender caresses. How could you do that to me, Vybius?” I restrained my burning tears. “I will kill you. If not this day, then one day soon. I swear it.”

I slashed a wing across Ahriman’s beautiful face and shot up into the blackened sky. Now that I could see the open portal, I had but to think it and instantly I was standing before it. As I took my last step toward freedom, a giant hand grabbed my tinkling crimson locks, pulling me back into the darkness, firmly holding me there.

“You cannot leave me, my love. This is our wedding day.”

I could almost reach out and touch the enchanting forest of Vanahirdem. I was so close.

Demons and Angels alike backed away. My immortal lover held me fast, kissed the top of my head, tightening his trembling embrace.

“I thought you loved me,” he whispered sorrowfully.

I was terrified beyond sanity, completely absent words. Yes, I loved this man. Of course I did. My heart didn’t change with my vision. It couldn’t. My re-creation was not undone by the truth of my surroundings.

“You love me still. I feel it within you. I feel it within me. I know you, tiny Angel. We are one. Do you now deny your heart?”

“No, Vindicus. I do not deny my heart, cannot deny it.”

“Then why do you fight me? Why do you choose now to leave me?”

“You lied to me!” I could no longer hold in those burning tears, they cracked my voice. “Everything, it was all a lie. Your deceit, your betrayal… it far outweighs the pain Varick left upon my shattered heart. I never knew true pain, Vindicus, not until you, not until your poisonous love ruled me.” I stopped fighting, stopped resisting. I just went limp within his mighty arms. “Everything was a vicious lie,” I whispered in despair.

“No, my love, not everything. I beg your forgiveness for what deceit I played a role in, but I did not lie to you. Think back. Remember every single word I said. From the moment you entered my gate until this moment with you locked in my arms. I did not lie.” Apollyon turned me so I was looking directly upon his flawless face, into those beautiful sapphire eyes. “Look at me, my love, and know I speak the truth.Thisis who I am. I’m the same as when you first looked upon me and could only stutter.” He smiled, not only with his mouth but with his eyes as well. He melted me.

“Are you Angel or devil?” I whispered.

“I am both. It depends on what I need to be. You don’t need the devil in me, Anicee. I am now, and will always be, only your Angel.”

“But… I do not wish to live in hell.”

“Has anyone harmed you? No, my love, they have not. I would cast them into the pit and forever from your sight if they dared try. Hell is your state of mind. Only your eyes have changed. If you wish it, this place will forever be Vandermil to you. You need only say the word.”

I pushed against his sculpted chest with what little strength and will I had left.

“Don’t fight against me, tiny Angel. I will not force my Anicee to stay by my side. I feel the heartbreaking conflict waging within you. You love me truly. You are terrified to stay and you’re just as terrified to leave. Jenevier, I am the Prince of this realm. Call me Apollyon or Vindicus, it matters not to my heart. I am yours, eternally… I am yours. I cannot undo what you have caused within me and I would kill anyone who tried. It’s an exquisitely painful gift—love. I will always thank you for the blessing of it, and the curse of it as well.”

Instantly, the light was turned back on. I saw Vandermil in all its glory once more.

“See what you wish to see. Think what you need to think. You are my wife, my Princess, my Anicee. Your place is at my side. If you choose to stay with me, we will rule this realm together. No harm will ever come to you. I am Apollyon, your loving husband. No Angel or demon can stand against me. You will always be safe. You will always be happy. And I will shower you with more love than any mortal could even possess. Do you owe them such allegiance?”

“I owe allegiance to no man, save the one of my choosing.”

I pressed, halfheartedly, against the Angel I truly loved and turned back to see the portal and the dense forest beyond.

“Look into my eyes, Jenevier. Listen closely to my heart. I am an awesome Angel and I am immortal. We are joined in every way, throughout all time and eternity. I can never hate you and I will never force you with any matter. If your heart still beats for Vanahirdem, I am patient and unwavering. I will not make you choose. I will wait for you, my only Princess.”

With his promise of eternal love still floating on the air, Vindicus released his hold upon me. The force with which I was pressing him sent me unexpectedly flying backwards through the open portal into the forest of that holy city. I landed on my backside and immediately changed back to Jenevier. Scrambling to my knees, I frantically crawled toward the fading doorway where my loving husband yet remained, just on the other side.

Noooo… Vindicus… don’t leave me. I cannot breathe when you’re gone. Why? Why did you release me?My heart was screaming in my head, a special lexis for my husband alone. He heard every tortured word.I choose you, Vindicus. Of course I choose you. How could I not? Never remove your arms from me. Never let me go, ever again.

Only my hand made it through the portal back to hell before massive arms caught me around my waist, pulling me back from the darkness I so desperately sought. But my lover, my treasured husband, had already seized my proffered hand within his realm. I could feel his heart crumbling, feel it mirrored in my own chest as I was slowly pulled away.

I screamed out in pain. Pain enough to be nauseous. My arm was being torn from my body as my soul shattered within. And then Apollyon, my loving Vindicus, released me before I could be rent in twain. The force with which my current savior was pulling me, now unhindered, sent us both tumbling through the vast forest of Vanahirdem.

“I have you now, my love. I finally have you back and I’m never letting you go again.” Varick wept openly, bitterly, joyously.

The whole of his immense weight had me pinned to the ground as he covered my face with soft kisses.

“Okay… Okay… That’s enough.” I half growled. “I’m fine now. You can let me up.”

“Apologies, Jenevier. I just never thought I’d see you again. When I learned you had to fight your way through the Underworld, I feared you would be lost forever.”

“Thanks for your vote of confidence, old friend,” I said dryly. “Is Valencia safe?”

“It had nothing to do with confidence.” Varick rolled off me and helped me to my feet. “My fear was that a dark soul would desire you, cage you within that blackest of realms. Your glory is too enchanting to resist, Princess. I have a hard time believing you went unmolested in that filthy place.”

I dusted off the leaves and muck clinging to my clothing, stuck within my hair. I could feel Vindicus’s worried eyes upon me. I turned back to the diminishing doorway with a mixed feeling of pure relief and bitter regret. No… it was regret only. Regret for my loss and regret for the harm I’d wrought. I hate regret.

I love you forever, Anicee.His voice rang clearly through my mind as the deep connection to my husband closed off with the now absent portal.

I held tightly to his final words. I would never forget them. A giant hole opened inside me—firmament giving way to an abyss. It left me empty, hollow, bitterly miserable. Briefly, I feared what might fill that hole. What unworthy thing would try vainly to fill my void, replace my Vindicus? Nothing could. But something would try, would have to. No creature can walk about with a great big hole right through the center of them.

What shall I do to feel whole again, to feel complete, full?

The pitiful question was a welcome-mat for darkness. I knew that. Yet, I asked it anyway.

“Valencia must have returned through a different doorway,” Varick was saying. “There may be but one portal on that side, but there are many openings within the forest on this side. I was just the lucky one who made it toyou.” He tried to hug me. I stiffened. He stepped back.

“Yeah, lucky you. So… Which way from here?” I asked, whilst looking around.

“This way!”

It was like a rock slammed into me, rattling me—a giant vise imprisoning my body. Only when I felt the warm humming growls coming from my captor’s gigantic chest did I release the breath I’d been holding.

“Ah, Vareilious, Brother. You have been long from my sight and sorely missed,” I said weakly.

“That’s it? That’s all I’m gonna get? A dry comment laced with sarcasm? After four long years, I’d expect at least a giant hug and thousands of childish giggles to go along with it.”

Ah, then according to Valencia, you should have found me yesterday, I thought.

“Apologies, Brother. It’s good to see your handsome face, smirk and all. But I am absent cause to rejoice.”

“Absent cause? Who the hell are you? Is this my sister I hold or has a demon claimed her shape?”

“I am no demon, Brother. At least, not fully. Now, if you wouldn’t mind releasing me. My lungs are in need of more air.”


Page 18

He opened his arms and I fell unceremoniously to the ground. Both majestic warriors stood staring at me in disbelief, gawking. Vareilious sniffed the air about me. I stood my ground. Returned glare for glare.

My jovial Gate Guardian broke the awkward silence. “Where’d you get that scar?”

I smirked. “Which one? There are many.”

“The ugly one marring your beautiful face. Just there.” He pointed to my left cheek.

My hand went to the spot where Valencia had struck me, returning my vision and revealing the truth about the Underworld.

“Your lovely sister blessed me with this one.”

“And your hand?” Vareilious asked

I looked down to see my left hand. It was withered, scarred, as if the flesh had been burned away. I wiped at the betraying tears spilling down my cheeks.

“I don’t know,” I whispered.

“It was the only part of her yet remaining in hell when I found her,” Varick said. “Something, or someone, was holding her.”

“Vindicus…” I muttered.

“Say what? Vindicus? I know him not.” Vareilious laughed. “But there are no Vanir in the Underworld.”

“Apollyon,” I whispered softly.

Varick grabbed my shoulders and shook me gently, stopping only when my sad eyes met his worried gaze.

“Did you say Apollyon? Are you certain? How did you come by that name?”

I didn’t speak. I only stared at the enchanting man I was to marry so long ago. The first man who named me his Anicee. He was as beautiful as ever—regal, flawless. And he had given his heart to another, forgotten me with time. I wanted to throw up. Nearly did. I jerked free from his hands.

“It cannot be, Brother,” Vareilious said. “Think about it. If that devil-Angel had gotten his hands on her, she’dstillbe screaming within his vile pit. The Prince of Hell is evil incarnate. Be thankful she is mistaken.”

“I amnotmistaken,” I spat. “And I am no longer a child who needs your tongue to answer in my stead, Vareilious.”

“How dare you speak to me thusly? Do you have any idea what we’ve gone through over you? How much we have mourned you, grieved for you every single day? Our temple remained locked to us for three years for our disobedience. And now you stand before me, defiant and dismissive. Have you no heart, tiny maiden? Where have you left your soul?”

“You mean to stand before me with the unmitigated gall to compare sufferings? Truly? Are you mad, holy sentinel? Have your wits escaped you? Were you torn from your entire family only to wake face down in a putrid swamp covered with carnivorous vermin? Was it you, good Vareilious, who roamed the eighth layer minus body and soul? Never resting, always continually walking. Was it you, greatest of warriors, who had their very heart ripped from their chest? Tossed aside without value or worth, only to end up in the pits of hell itself? Were you the one who sat amongst liars as your soul was eaten, devoured one bite at a time? One precious memory after the next, gobbled up before your very eyes until nothing else remained. Until… you were nothing but an empty vessel—fragile and broken and hollow. Was thatyou? Didyoursuffering compare to that?”

Only shocked silence answered me.

“We would never presume such,” Varick whispered. “You know Vareilious always speaks before he thinks. We have no idea what happened to you, or the punishment you had to endure. I cried for you every night. When the cathedral doors opened and I found my manacle upon the mercy seat—”

“The old Angel lost his mind,” Vareilious interrupted.

I looked at Varick’s blushing cheeks and Vareilious’s goofy smile. I had missed them sooo much. And that only made the pain of their betrayal all the more heartbreaking.

“And yet, you both seem to have moved on so well with your lives,” I said dryly, minus feeling entirely.

Without the tiniest thought, I donned my mask and flew into the forest as Vareilious’s curses echoed around me.

Chapter 24

Vanahirdem

(van-ah-HEAR-dem)

 

 

 

“Where will you go from here? Will you return home? Will you make your way back to Ashgard?”

Vareen’s gentle voice was unexpected, yet treasured instantly. I ran to her and threw my arms around the beautiful seer. I cried my heart out upon her shoulder, once again.

“There, there, my darling. Let it all go,” she whispered. “Once the tears have fallen, hold to the pain no more.”

“How do you do that?” I sniffed, wiping away my tears.

She smiled softly. “You have only just been returned to my visions after your horrible absence. And the first sight I have… is your back as you leave us once more.”

“There’s nothing left for me here, Vareen. This you well know.”

“And what’s left for you in Tamar Broden?”

“Nothing.” I snorted out a laugh. “There’s nothing left for me in the whole of Ashgard, and there’s nothing left for me on layer eight. My ethereal home here holds nothing of value. And my heart is now imprisoned within the very pits of hell itself.”

Vareen looked at me with grave worry.

“Do not concern yourself with my lot, beautiful mother. I am no longer the volatile little girl playing with an inconceivably powerful mask. I’ve learned my lessons the hard way and I won’t soon forget them. You have many things to celebrate, my dear friend. Your daughter is finally returned to you and your son—” I choked up, the words caught in my throat.

“Jenevier, please stay but a day,” she pleaded. “It’s amazing how much a heart can change with just one day.”

“Ahh, Vareen, no one can know the truth of that more than I. Just… one… day.” I sighed and turned to look at the familiar cloudbank. “Alas, Vanahirdem no longer fits me. I am no longer comfortable here. I will only bring pain to this beautiful place. I love you too much and I want you to experience the joy long overdue you.” I squeezed her hands in mine and smiled at the gentle woman. “Answer me this. Has God made me Vanir in your visions?”

The response to my question was Vareen’s downcast eyes.

“That’s what I thought. I’m not sure why Vashti yet lives within me, but I do know my part is played out here. I will visit my childhood home. Then I’ll travel the layers until I find where I now belong. If there remains such a place among the living,” I mumbled.

“Will you at least go into the healing waters and erase your scars?” Varick’s gentle voice made the hair on the back of my neck painfully rise.

I glanced at him as he approached. “No, dear brother. These scars are well and truly deserved. I think I shall keep them.” I smiled, despite myself.

“They could never diminish your rare beauty.” He lightly ran his fingertips across the mark torn into my once fair cheek. I trembled. “What has happened to make your lovely curls all the more beautiful?”

Varick gently touched my hair, tenderly fingering one of the long pink curls. I wanted him to still love me so very badly. His kindness was torturous in every way.

“Ahh, Brother, now there’s a fine tale worth the telling. I’m sure Valencia will fill in all the gory details for you.” I laughed, but it was clear to all… my heart wasn’t in it.

“Why do you name me brother?”

I turned, finally allowing myself to look into those heavenly golden eyes. The same perfect eyes that had once stolen my heart.

“What would be your wish, Milord? What would you have me call you?”

“You once called me many things; Angel, warrior, Guardian, husband, lover. Have I changed so much to your eyes, to your heart?”

“How can you now say these things to me? I’m not worthy of such kindness and attention. Save your sweet words for the deserving ears that long to hear them. I wish to take my leave now before I once again hurt the family of my heart. I can no longer claim you, Prince Varick. And a prolonged stay will only bring bitterness to my newly recovered soul.”

“My love, your words are so foreign. I do not grasp your meaning. Rest will bring clarity to your thoughts. Please, stay but one day,” Varick pleaded. “Allow yourself a peaceful moment in which to heal.”

“Thank you for the most generous offer, Milord. But I must decline. I wish to sleep in the bed of my youth this coming night. I am curious and wish to catch up on all that has changed during my exile. Please understand and forgive my rude ungratefulness at your most honored invitation.”

“Ahh, but my invitation is not wholly conceived by my selfish desire to have you in my arms one more day,” Varick said. “Have you not considered your change in appearance—your ethereal skin, your beautiful hair, your enchanting new eyes?”

Well, hell, I thought.No. Dammit all. I didn’t think about that.

“They are not things known of in Ashgard.” He continued to play with my curls. “How do you even know they’ll be able to see you? I’m afraid you are more Vanir than human, my love.”

“Nay, more Angel,Ishould think.” Vareilious growled as he approached. “I thought I smelled it in the forest. I can see you, Jenevier. I can taste you on the air,tiny Angel.”

I laughed. “Yes, I knew you could, my friend. I’m not the same girl you once played at being in love with. I’m sorry to disappoint you, Vareilious. But your tiny Angel is all grown up now.”

“Ha, a little alone time in exile does not a woman make,” he taunted.

“No, ‘tis true. And a sarcastic tone from a giant does not my temper bait.”

Varick laughed, but Vareilious stood firm in his brand of interrogation.

“What ails you, Brother? Do you want me to return to you weak and feebleminded, as in my youth? Come to me, Vareilious. Taste your old friend and tell me what you glean with your mighty tongue.” I held my arms out wide and turned my face toward the glorious sun.

The giant Guardian placed his hands upon my waist, lifting me up level with him, nose to nose. Vareilious peered into my changed eyes and hesitated.

“Do not fear me,” I whispered, for his ears alone. “I would never hurt you. Once you wished to count me as lover. Do you recoil from me now? Have even you replaced me within your heart?”

“Even I? Maiden, you are irreplaceable to all you touch. Just give me the word and I’ll slay the lot of them—lay them low and claim you as mine own.” He winked and bore his razor sharp teeth.

“Then taste me, Brother, and know me for what I am.”

He flashed me a wicked smile. Digging his nose down within my tunic, he licked me from deep between my breasts all the way up to my scarred cheekbone. He smacked his lips together, rolled me around on his tongue. The confused look that crossed his angelic face was fringed with fear. Gently sitting me down, he took a giant step back.

I couldn’t help but chuckle at his revelation. “What is it, Brother? Did the cat get your tongue? Or, perhaps it was something else.”

“Vareilious, what is it? What’s wrong?” Varick asked, concerned.

“She’s a… she’s a… an Ang… she’s…”

“Angelis the word good Vareilious can’t manage to spit out of his eager mouth,” I replied.

The giant sentinel kept his gaze locked with mine as he took another step back. “No…” Vareilious slowly shook his head, emphasizing his whispering denial.

“Yes. But not just any old Angel. Right, Vareilious? I was created of a Vanir, birthed by a human, destroyed by a devil, and remade with an Angel.” I held my arms wide as they all looked intently at me.

“Destroyed? Remade? Speak not in riddles, my love,” Varick said as he began to panic. “Vareilious, tell me what she means. Speak now, Brother.”

“What she says is true. It’s all there. I taste it still. But not just any Angel, Varick. I tastehim. His essence remains upon my tongue—the Prince of Darkness himself.”

“Yes, we are one now. Just as you and I once shared a bond formed by creation, so now too I share that with another. You are not gone from me, sweet Varick. I am merely… more. Now, you tell me. What creature or abomination am I? Where is it I shall fit in? To which layer or realm will a spawn such as I call home?”

“Here, my love. Here is your home. I don’t care what you’ve become. My love for you hasn’t changed. I have saved and carried with me all the pieces of your heart, dearest Angel, and now I want to make it whole again. Do not leave me, I beg you.”

“What lie is this? An elaborate trick, perhaps? Vareilious cannot goad me into losing control. And you, Varick, cannot lie and bind me here. I saw you, Milord. I saw how patient and everlasting your kind of lovetrulyis. I want no part of it. I do not wish to leave as your enemy. I only wish to leave.”

Vareen gasped. “It’s true, then. That was you, Jenevier. I knew I felt you there.”

I donned my mask with ease and turned toward my angelic mother. “Yes, Vareen, I was there. My body was destroyed within that temple four years ago, and my soul shattered in almost the exact same spot… only yesterday. Now you know why I can never live here. If you have any more unanswered questions, turn to Valencia. I told her all.”

When I left Vanahirdem, I had every intention of returning to the back door of Aunt Marlise’s little cottage, but I had one stop more to make. Instantly, I was standing once again in the forest where the portal to hell was now closed.

I stuck my withered hand through the air before me. Nothing happened.

“It doesn’t work like that.” The angelic tinkling voice caused anger to swell within me.

“Then please, enlighten me, dear Valencia. How does it work?”

“I knew you’d come back here,” she snipped.

“What a clever girl. Now if only some of that wit could be put to a more worthy cause.”

“You remind me ofhim. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but you do. Perhaps it’s the strange way you now speak. Or perhaps the way you carry yourself—the set of your shoulders. Or perhaps it’s just the overpowering demon stench.”

“Or perhaps it’s all those horrible things wrapped up together, Valencia dear. If I offend you so, why not relieve your senses and send me back from whence I just came?”

“I would love to, precious sister. Alas, it would destroy my brother. So I believe I’ll see that you remain right here.”

“Oh, Valencia darling, have you not heard? I’m leaving Vanahirdem. Your brother believes me gone now.” I taunted her, tried to goad her into revealing the answers I sought.

“Well if you want to go, then go. I care not. But you’ll have to find another exit.Thisone no longer exists.” She smiled and flew away.

I believe I hate her. No, I’m certain of it. I hate her.


Page 19

Chapter 25

Vindicus

(VIN-dah-kuss)

 

 

 

I let my troubled mind wander, absently pulling up blades of grass as I sat cross-legged near the now closed portal to hell.

“What am I doing? How pathetic can I possibly be? I am sitting here in a peaceful heaven, longing to walk back into hell… by my own free will. This is madness.”

Then I felt him. I knew, minus sight, my loving husband was sitting right in front of me. I got to my knees, reached into the air once more. Nothing.

“I feel you there, my love. Can you see me?”

I heard his tender voice in my mind, felt it spoken within my heart. Butterflies came to life inside my churning stomach and goose bumps sprang up on my shaking arms.

Yes, my love, my Jenevier. I heard your voice.

“I can’t see you.”

You don’t need your eyes to know I am near, dearest Anicee.

“Can you see me?”

Yes. You are more beautiful than ever.

“You tease. It’s only been hours since you held me. Why did you let me go?”

I wanted you to know what it felt like to leave me. I wanted you to choose to be with me. I wanted you to find a way to return to the Angel that gently holds your heart… if that’s what your heart truly desires.

“I love you.”

And I you.

“I don’t know which way to go. It seems I no longer fit with the humans upon this layer, nor do I belong with the Vanir.”

That is true.

“But I cannot come back to you. At least, not this way. I have had my fill of roaming. I want a home again. I want a family. I want someone to laugh with, someone to talk to, someone to hold, to love.”

…I’m sorry I let you leave.

“I know why you did. You didn’t want to see me sitting where you are, pining away to be here.”

You are an amazing creature, Jenevier. There is none like you… even I am not like you. You are made up of so many wonderful things you should be able to blend with any race. Yet the opposite is true.

“I know. Humans will fear me. The Vanir look down upon me…” I paused a moment, mulling over a new idea. “Are thererealAngels anywhere out here?”

Yes, my love. There are many. But swear to me now you will never seek them out.

“Why?”

They will deem you an abomination, a dark abomination. They know me. We were brothers, once. They will look at you through the same eyes of hate they now view me.

“Oh. So… there’s no one…”

My lover didn’t respond, but I felt him reading my troubled heart.

“Am I immortal?”

I believe so. At least, a part of you is.

“Can you ever leave hell?”

No, I cannot.

“So, if I’m immortal and I can only return to you if I die…” My words turned to ash in my mouth. “Then I am condemned to wander this universe alone, for all time and eternity.”

I could hold back my tears no longer. I determined to save my strength for when it would be needed most. I would put on a good face for the rest of the world. Only with Vindicus did I feel safe enough to be weak.

I cannot abide your tears, tiniest Angel. They torment me. I want to hold you in my arms. I want to comfort you whilst I kill every being that caused even one of those bitter drops to fall. You are my Princess, my Anicee, my only love… and I cannot protect you. What good is it to wield all the powers of the Underworld if I can’t even wipe away your sorrow?

“No, my beautiful Angel. I cry now because you’re the only one I can be myself with. Ineedthese tears to flow. I need them to heal. Yet only with you do I feel safe enough to shed them.”

Jenevier…

I felt a disturbance inside me. The air before my face trembled. I thought I heard a faint gasp within the forest, but its insignificance erased it from my mind as my heart leapt at the thought of seeing my husband once more. Vindicus’s enormous hand appeared out of thin air. He wiped away my tears.

Don’t cry, my love. I cannot stand to see you in pain.

Then my beautiful dark Angel ran his fingertips delicately along the ragged black scar Valencia had left upon my cheek.

I will kill the Vanir who did this.

I reached up, placing my hand over his, tenderly kissing his angelic palm. “No, my love.Thatscar is extremely important to me. It served to open my eyes. Yet my heart did not change. It forever reminds me of your beautiful face and the magical love we eternally share.”

So be it.He touched my cheek once more.

Vindicus had cut one of my curls during our battle. This ringlet now hung loose in my face—never quite wanting to stay in place. Even though it was long enough, it never managed to stay tucked behind my ear for very long.

This one is my fault.

He played with the stray curl. I could feel his love so strongly it was painful. Then he lifted my withered hand.

This is my fault as well.

“Do not say such. I should never have left you.”

I should never have let you leave. I was wrong, my love. Your journey is now harder because of me. In my infinite desire to have you, I have caused you irrevocable pain. The precious gift of immortality is now a curse unto you. The eternal connection we share will now only ever produce bitterest tears.

“No, my Angel. Please don’t impart such sad words. Tell me how to find you again. I will move heaven and hell to lie within your arms. I will gladly pay any price just to feel your lips upon mine, smell your sweet breath beside me.”

What is this? What’s happening? I don’t understand…

Panic swooped down upon me, painfully tightening my chest. “What’s wrong, Vindicus?” My voice cracked. “Tell me. What’s happening?”

I’m glad you cannot see my face, Anicee… He paused for several heartbeats.

“Tell me right now. What’s going on?” My panic was fast becoming anger. “Dammit, Vindicus, if you don’t answer me I swear I’ll—”

I weep.

I held my breath, shocked. I didn’t know how to respond.

These tears are foreign to my eyes. Never have I been loved as you love me. Not even by my father. The feeling is gloriously, exquisitely… painful. My Princess, the loss of you will surely destroy me.

NowIwas the one weeping. “I love you, Vindicus. I will always love you, Apollyon. You are the eternal keeper of my heart.”

Please, don’t say such sweet things. It only makes what I must do all the harder.

“What? What must you do? What’s wrong now? What intention do you hide from me?”

I will never give my heart to another, this I swear. You are my eternal wife, my blessed Anicee. But I do not hold you to this fate I have willingly chosen for myself. I will leave you unfettered while you roam the layers. I promise to keep this safe for you, until you find a way back into my arms. I know you will one day return to me. I believe only in that truth, nothing else.

“What… I don’t understand…”

I looked down at the only thing I could see and feel of my beloved husband, his strong hand firm in mine. I kissed it and he trembled.

“Vindicus, if you truly care for me, if I yet hold value to you, do not do what is set in your heart. If you take your manacle from me, I will be utterly alone. For mercy’s sake, my love, leave me this one thing. Leave our bond.”

Dearest Jenevier, I have healed all that I can for you. Alas, I have caused more harm than I have the power to cure. I ask only this. One day you will forgive me and one day you will find me once more.

His hand slid from mine, returning from whence it came before I could grab hold of him. I covered my eyes as the tears gushed through my fingers. I cried out from loss, from pain, from longing. I cried for the wedding I never had, the first oneandthe second one. And I cried for all the lonely years I knew now awaited me.

When I wiped clear my eyes, only then did I notice my withered hand was restored, sort of. The skin was once again full and luminescent, yet it now glowed with a faint azure hue, reminiscent of my husband’s beautiful hair. When my Angel’s face came to my mind, I looked to my tattooed finger and thanked God, right then and there.

Vindicus’s manacle was still upon my hand. I could have borne anything… save the loss of it.

I will always only love you, my Angel, my Anicee...

These were the last words I heard from my dear husband. They stabbed a hole through my damnable, ever-beating heart.

Chapter 26

Vittorio

(vit-TOR-ee-oh)

 

 

 

“I’ve never seen anything quite like that before,” Valencia whispered, amazed.

The tiny gasp I’d heard in the forest hadn’t been my imagination. Varick’s sister had heard and seen all that transpired between me and Apollyon.

“You’ve neverfeltanything quite like this either,” I replied sardonically.

I didn’t turn to look at her. She was completely insignificant to me. I didn’t even care she had eavesdropped on one of the most personal moments of my life. But I did wish she would just shut-up.

“Your bond must be completely unnatural for him to be able to breach our world.”

“Our bond is the most natural thing in all creation. Please refrain from commenting on things your unworthy mind cannot possibly comprehend.”

“I’ll not let that one little quip bother me. I see how much pain you’re in. So it’s okay, this time,” she chirped.

“Well now, your most gracious understanding is such a sweet blessing.” My words were a hiss, but she seemed not to notice.

“Hmm, I wonder how he did that,” she mused. “I’ve never read anything like it within the ancient writings.”

My patience with this flippant little Guardian had long since left me. “So why don’t you leave me in peace and go study upon it?”

“I mean, it just glistens,” she whispered. “…like sapphires.”

I rolled my eyes and slowly turned to face her. “You make me weary. Leave me. Run and tell your brother all that has befallen me here so he and his new wife can share another laugh at my expense. I am past caring.”

I felt the same coldness I’d felt in hell—encroaching upon my heart, wrapping it in fiery hatred, darkly warming it.

“Ugh! You’re so strange,” she huffed. “I don’t understand your mind or the things you say. You are so terribly odd.”

“Valencia, gratitude for your concern on my behalf. Let me repay you now with a bit of free advice.” I stood then and faced her fully. “If you don’t shut that gaping hole in your pretty little face, I will enthusiastically pluck off your fluffy wings and weave myself a lovely, albeit bloodstained, full-length cape from them.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, pointing her haughty chin toward the sky. “Humpf. No wonder my brother didn’t marry you. You’re always so cross or so horribly sad. I don’t believe I’ve seen you smile even once.”

My eyes flashed red, but the giant hand now upon my shoulder instantly calmed my fury, washed it from me. I freely let it go. I didn’t truly care anyway.

“Valencia, ye go too far,” Vittorio warned. “Yer mother’s had a vision an’ she’s calling for ye. I dunnae want tae have tae tell her ye’ve been torn tae shreds within the forest.”

“Yes, Vittorio. I shall go now. But keep a close eye on this one. I don’t trust her,” she called out over her retreating shoulder.

“Vittorio, Brother, so nice to see you again.”

I hugged the valiant warrior for a long moment. I had genuinely missed my dear friends.

“I heard ye’d already left. I was vexed with ye, Lass. Ye hadnae even taken the time tae say hello. An’ then I was denied a farewell tae boot.”

“Apologies, Brother. I didn’t want to tarry and cause any more problems within my ethereal family.”

“Problems?” He laughed. “Aye, Lass, I would define ye more as thegluethat binds us than the trouble that separates us. Ye’ve been sorely missed by all.”

“Not everyone.”

“Surely ye jest, wee maid. We have all longed for ye tae mend our broken lives.”

“Such a smooth tongue. Glad to see you haven’t changed, Brother.”

“Aye, but ye have. Let me get a good look at ye.” Vittorio held my hand above my head, spinning me in a slow circle before him. “Mmm, even more luscious than when last I was graced with yer rare beauty. Yer all woman now. I see nae girl left within ye. Tell me, wee lamb. How have ye come by such lovely colorings? Yer skin favors mine. But yer curls are breathtaking. An’ yer scar makes ye even more beautiful an’ enchanting than ever. I cannae stop staring at ye.”

“My scar?” I put my hand to my torn cheek.

“Aye, if ye can even call it a scar. Looks more like a rare decoration. An’ the mesmerizing color perfectly matches this single lock of hair.”

“Vittorio, have you been in the forbidden spirits? What madness do you now claim? Or have you been long on a mission and your senses are askew?” I laughed and bumped him playfully with my shoulder.

“Aye, laugh all ye like, warrior girl. But I know what I see. An’ it arouses me like nae before. Be glad ye were nae yet this exotic on our first mission, or I would have claimed yer flower before Varick had stolen it away.”

The familiar deep rumble emanating from his massive chest made me laugh again. All the times that same teasing warning had come from the warrior Vanir filled my mind. For one brief moment, I recalled all the laughter and gaiety I’d been privileged to be a part of in this magical city with my new family.

I giggled, despite myself. Vittorio always managed to make me smile, no matter what.

“Calm yourself, Beast, or I shall have to tame you properly.”

His guttural growls increased. “Aye, dunnae tease me so, Mistress, or I shall gobble ye up before my senses can be controlled.”

“You’ll have to catch me first.” I winked at him and darted away.

My mask and wings were part of me now. With barely a thought, I was Vashti, racing through the skies with the giant warrior in close pursuit. Our yells and laughter rained down on the sparkling city below us. Glowing faces turned toward the heavens, feasting upon our playful aerial ballet.

“Hey, why didn’t I get an invitation to this party?”

“Vinika!” I yelled her name as I slammed into her. Entwined, we spun around and around through the air.

Our laughter melted together with all the other warriors who joined in our frolicking game of sky tag.

With my new Angel DNA,I could sense the fun, the love, and the sweet enjoyment ontheirlevel. It was awesome. When Vanir laugh, they laugh with their entire being. When they play, they’re the very definition of children in the throes of wild, uninhibited enjoyment. This was, without exception, the most fun I’d ever known. And I never wanted it to end.

We raced and flew and laughed. We forgot all about demons and Angels and humans. Fun was the only thing on our minds. It took hours before exhaustion began to set in. Our brothers and sisters bowed out of our game one at a time, until only Vittorio and I were left alone in our play.

“Aye, I want tae show ye something, beautiful warrior.”

He grabbed my hand and flew through the clouds. That nauseating feeling washed over me before we popped out into the bluest sky I believe I have ever seen.

“Wow…”

He laughed. “Aye, Lass, I thought ye might like it. This is my favorite place tae come when I need peace in my heart an’ calm in my soul. The look on yer face, sweet Angel, told me ye needed a wee bit of peace an’ calm.”

“What is this beautiful place, Vittorio?”

“It’s Lyra, the land of layer one.”

“I have been to layer one. I had a summons to Lyra. Yet never have I seen this place.”

“Aye, but that’s because it’s a secret, hidden place. I only found it by accident whilst I was hunting down a particularly mischievous Fairy. He tried tae hide in here.”

“Wow… I can’t get over it. This place must befullof magic.”

“Aye, Lass, an’ nae other Vanir knows of this place. Nae one ootside a few blessed Fairies, are even aware of its existence. This place, my most beautiful of Angels, is my gift tae ye.”

I flung my arms around his neck, squeezing as hard as I could. “Gratitude, Vittorio. With every ounce of my being… thank you. It’s too perfect and I don’t deserve it, but I love you for it. You always could bring a smile to my face when I thought I’d never be able to smile again. Only you, Brother.”

He laughed and messed up my hair. “Aye, an’ I love ye more, my wee darlin’.”

We spent hours exploring the magical garden. It was deep within the valley of four pine-laden mountains. They completely surrounded it, keeping its secrets. It was easily accessible from the sky but torturously hard to get to by land. Moss-strewn vines formed a living wall within, and a little waterfall spilled into a tranquil pool as clear as glass. Brightly colored gemstones jutted from the ground and sides of the mountains. The sun danced from the pristine waters to the glorious stones, making the whole valley sparkle… like magic.

We played in the cool waterandhad foot races upon the lush grass. It was divine.

Vittorio told me the name of every precious gem, some of them standing taller than the angelic sentinel himself. There were citrines and rubies, sapphires and moonstones. He showed me topaz of many colors, amethyst, emeralds, and aventurines. There was a giant slab of perfect blue turquoise behind the waterfall and you could easily scoop up handfuls of pearls off the bottom of the pond. We made a game of diving—seeing who could collect the most in one hand. It wasn’t really a fair game since Vittorio’s giant hand was bigger than four of mine.

We danced behind the waterfall. Soaked with its cool spray—my curls sodden, my heart lifted. He had me stand on his feet while he showed me how to hold my hands, just so. And there, my graceful, gallant Guardian taught me the many lovely dances of the Vanir. He led and I just held on, much like a father would teach his baby girl.

There seemed to be no end to the wondrous new discoveries. I felt five years old again.

“Wonder how long we’ve been here?” I pondered the question aloud while we lay on our backs, chewing blades of grass and pointing out clouds that reminded us of the silliest things.

“I know nae. Time seems tae lose all meaning here. That’s exactly why I brought ye tae this place. I dunnae need the gory details of what’s happened tae ye. One look in yer beautiful new eyes told me ye needed this place more than any other being alive. An’ I was right. Was I nae?”

“Yes, Vittorio. This place is precisely what I needed and will continue to need for many years to come.”

“Aye, Lass, an’ that’s why I’ve finally decided on a name for it.”

“A name? What have you decided to call my own little piece of heaven?”

“Princess Falls. For this day, I danced with a true Princess underneath an enchanted waterfall.”

“Vittorio, that name is almost as perfect as you are.” I kissed him on the cheek and giggled when he blushed. “This has been the best day of my whole life. No worries, no cares, not a single demon or dark Angel to be seen, my dearest friend by my side… yes,thisis my perfect day.”

“Aye, scrunch up yer nose like a wee rabbit an’ I’ll say it’s beenmyperfect day, too,” he said with a chuckle. “Aye now, just like that, Lass. I love when ye do that.”

“Has it been a whole day?” I asked.

“I believe it’s been more than two now.”

“Two days? Truly?”

“More than, I think. Time loses all meaning here.”

“Yes, but why don’t we hunger or thirst?”

“It’s all part of the magic, I suppose. Helps with yer delicious figure, Lass.” Vittorio winked. “I dunnae want tae, but I must go back soon. I’ve nae stayed gone quite this long before. If I’ve been summonsed, Varick will be furious with me. I cannae stay gone this long an’ nae expectsomeform of grief tae accompany my return.”

“Oh, poo. Varick’s always furious about something. The only time the corners of his mouth turn up is when he’s telling me how badly I err concerning this thing or that. You’d think being in love would have smoothed out the constant crease in his noble brow. Or at the very least, put more of a spring in his majestic step.”

Vittorio laughed. “Aye, ye know him well, Lass. Ye know him well. So, yer still in love with him, are ye nae?”

“Well… since I’ve not quite figured out how to simply falloutof love with someone, yes. I love him still. Much to my chagrin.”

“How so?”

“How can you be so callous as to even ask, sweetest warrior? If I love him but I cannot have him, how else should I feel?”

“Ye mean, because of the Angel? Because of Apollyon?”

“You know about him, huh? Well, yes. Among other things, Vindicus is a definite reason.”

“Aye, Lass, are ye ready tae go back?”

“There’s no need for me to return to Vanahirdem, Brother. Perhaps I’ll just hang out here for a bit—lounge by the pool, scoop up some lovely pearls, dangle my feet in the cool water. Just enjoy a little peace, a little silence.”

“If I asked ye tae do me a favor, would ye?”

“Anything for you, Vittorio. I owe you more than you could possible desire in return. Never will I be able to repay the joy you have always gifted me. Undeserved joy, yes, but treasured more than you will ever know. Say the word and see it done, Brother.”


Page 20

“Aye, Lass, nae payment’s required. Yer smile is my only desire.” He tenderly kissed my forehead. I smiled. “Aye, just like that.”

I giggled. “You spoil me, beautiful Guardian. Tell me. What favor do you seek? I will grant you anything.”

“Aye then, go back with me, just for now.”

“Hmm, perhaps I should have thought that one through a little better, huh?” I laughed, playfully punching his massive arm. “Very well, I’ll go back with you… just for now.”

Chapter 27

Vareilious

(vah-REEL-ee-us)

 

 

 

“It’s simply not like you to shirk your responsibilities.” Vareen’s eyes were kind but her words stung Vittorio. “Where have you been? Vareilious has had to answertwoof your summonses. He’ll want words with you upon his return. OfthatI am certain.”

I knew I was really the one to blame, but he had begged me not to speak of it, even in his defense. So… I remained silent in the presence of the revered seer.

“Apologies, Milady. It wulnae happen again.”

“Let’s see that it does not. You have many responsibilities, Vittorio. Make sure you always see to them first…thenplaytime.”

Vareen winked at me. I knew I was the intended recipient of those words. I curtsied politely and we turned to go.

“Jenevier, I would have words with you, privately.”

“Yes, Milady.” I turned to Vittorio and hugged his massive neck. “Gratitude for everything, Brother,” I whispered. “You have saved me yet again.”

“Mention it nae. The pleasure was all mine, feisty warrior. An’ remember, shhh.” He placed his finger to his lips.

I giggled as he pinched my cheek. “I promise,” I whispered back.

“Come inside, child. Let’s catch up a bit, you and I.”

I followed the elegant woman into her parlor where tea and cakes were already prepared, waiting for us.

“So, you saw me coming.”

“Yes, I did.”

“What alldidyou see?”

“Not much. You have changed in more ways than appearance alone. You are not always clear in my mind. And sometimes I feel threatened by a dark presence when scrying you, a demon perhaps.”

“An Angel,” I replied flatly.

“I was afraid of that.” Worry creased her brow.

I laughed. “Truly? Afraid of an Angel?”

“OfyourAngel, yes.”

“Remove doubt and fear, dear friend. He would never harm those whom I love.”

“How can you be so certain?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I know him.”

“In so short a time? Do not forget. People can easily hide their true intentions, especially from someone who’s as pure of heart as you are.”

“He’s not a person, he’s an Angel. I don’t believe he ever was aperson. And… he no longer possesses the ability to hide even the tiniest thought from me, nor I from him. And by the way, old friend, I’m not sopureanymore, especially my heart.”

“I can see you are no longer a child. Your outward appearance doesn’t even hint at your inward differences. Does it, Jenevier?”

“Not even close, Vareen. Not even close.” I took a sip of the delicious tea.

“Will you humor me with answering a few questions? I am terribly curious about your exotic colorings and how they came to be.”

“Did Valencia not fill you in on everything already?”

Vareen chuckled softly. “I’m afraid Valencia isn’t what you would call an open book. Getting information from her can be much like pulling teeth.”

“Ask away,” I said with a shrug. “I have no reason to keep secrets.”

“Most obviously, the change in your skin and hair. How did that come to be?”

“You won’t like it, but it is what it is.” I sat my teacup down. “Let me ask you something first.”

“Very well, go ahead.” She nodded toward me, crossing her hands in her lap.

“Why do you want to know? Because you’re merely curious? Because you fear me now? Because you want to know what Vareilious tasted within me?” I raised one eyebrow and hardened my gaze. “Or is it because Varick’s really the one who wants to know yet is too afraid to ask me himself?”

Vareen smiled knowingly as Varick emerged from his hiding place in the next room.

“Varick, dear heart, you of all people should know. When your essence is blended you cannot hide from one another. Did you honestly think I couldn’t feel your heart racing within my own chest?”

“Apologies.” Varick blushed, lowering his head.

Vareen chuckled. “Gone is the tormented little girl we all knew. Returned is a woman wise beyond her years.”

“Heap not praise, revered mother. My wisdom has not been obtained from acting wise. It’s merely the reward for foolish behavior and stupid actions.”

She smiled. “Ahh, then you truly possess the greatest form of wisdom, little Princess.”

I sighed wearily. “Princess… not anymore.”

“Jenevier, my love, tell me all that has happened to you, all you had to go through,” Varick pleaded. “Please. I wish to know every moment I lost with you.”

I narrowed my eyes at him before I spoke. “Then shall we have tea for all eternity to stay caught up on all the lost moments yet to come?” My snide question was met with only silence. “Apologies. No matter how much you think I have changed, my bitter jealousy is one thing I fear I must always struggle with.” I half snorted. “Ahh, and I hear the great warrior coming now who obviously failed me so miserably in that very same training.”

“I failedyou, did I?” Vareilious snapped as he barged into Vareen’s home.

“Oh, did I say that, Brother? I fear you may have misheard. Or perhaps the fury brought by my presence is pounding too loudly within your ears to allow for proper understanding.”

“Why are you still here?” he barked. “Did I not witness you leaving by way of the same gate you first entered?”

I took another sip of tea. “That’s the odd thing about eyes. You can never truly trust them. Can you, Brother?”

“You dare count me as your brother still?”

I raised my gaze to meet his. “Would you rather be counted as my enemy? Now, that should play out deliciously, don’t you think? You could finally experience for yourself if I’m thetiny Angelyou always accused me of being.” I smiled and winked, taunting my old friend.

“Please, we have gathered here to speak openly. Not to fight or bare teeth to our own family,” Varick said.

“Family?” Vareilious and I spat the word out in unison.

“Yes, family,” Vareen softly answered. “Guardian Vareilious, will you take a seat and join us? Jenevier is being especially gracious to bless us with her story.” She looked at me. “Is it okay if good Vareilious joins us, dear one?”

I gently returned the dainty teacup to its matching saucer and kept my eyes fixed there. “As I said before, I have no reason to keep secrets.”

Once again, I started my familiar tale beginning with waking up in the swamp and ending with Valencia bidding me adieu in Vandermil. Well, in the Nether.

“All things happen for a reason.” Vareen’s mind was on the babies I had saved who were nearly grown and completely wonderful. “Your story alone, Jenevier, should bring faith to all Vanir. The work we do now is for the greater future good of all.”

Vareilious smirked. “I think you may have left out a few things, dear sister. I didn’t hear anything about Angels or pink hair.”

I furrowed my brow as I looked to each expecting face. “Am I mistaken or did I not return to your sight when Valencia winged me from the eighth layer?”

“You did not, child,” Vareen answered.

“Oh, so you really just wanted to know all about hell.” I shrugged my shoulders again and sighed. “Very well, then. I will tell you.” I stared at my cooling tea. “It looks exactly like Vanahirdem.”

“You lie,” Vareilious hissed.

“Ahh, is this not Commander of Emotions before me? Do we not now sit in the presence of the esteemed trainer over control and focus? If you keep to this path, mighty warrior, I fear I may dethrone you.”

Vareilious jumped to his feet, releasing a heart-stopping growl as his chair crashed to the floor. I moved not. I simply looked at him, minus concern or reaction.

“Now… is that any way to treat this lovely woman’s home? Show some manners. Restrain yourself, Brother. Or some may name you beast, and untamed at that.”

“Enough, you two,” Varick warned.

“Tell us where you got the curls, Witch,” Vareilious spat.

“My curls? Why, I was born with them. So I guess you could say God gave them to me.” I rolled my eyes. “Funny, I thought you noticed my curlsyearsago, Brother.”

Vareilious grabbed my arm, jerking me into the air, screaming curses at me and threatening bodily harm. Still, I didn’t react in-kind. I simply stared into his furious eyes, not even trying to feign concern.

“Tell us where you got thepinkcurls, Witch.”

“I’m a witch now, am I? Should you not be just a little concerned about all the things you now think I am? Tell me, great Guardian. Do you have a summons against me? Have you learned nothing from my sorrowful tale? No?” I yawned and looked away. “Then learn your own lessons in your own way. Sometimes the hard way’s the only way, I suppose.”

Vareilious eased me back to the floor.

I straightened my ruffled clothes and took my seat. “May I trouble you for another cup of tea, Milady?” I smiled at Vareen.

Varick placed his hand on mine when I reached for my cup.

“Please, Jenevier. Tell us what happened to you in hell.”

I couldn’t look him in the eye. I fear I will never bethatstrong.

“When I was in hell… your love, dear Varick, shattered my newly reclaimed soul.”

“Mylove? How couldmylove do such a thing? How can the perfect love I hold for you ever harm you in any way?”

I looked at Vareen. Her knowing eyes were fast filling with tears. But I continued to please their ravenous curiosities.

I held Vareilious’s admiring gaze as I told them of meeting Vindicus at the gate. “Before my eyes beheld him, I could have sworn it was you, Brother. I almost wish it had been.”

When I spoke of Vybius, I couldn’t force my eyes to look uponanyof them. I didn’t keep secret my desire for the amethyst Angel. I even went so far as to describe, in detail, all the ways he reminded me of Alzeen and Varick.

“I trusted him based on what I beheld with my eyes. That was myfirstmistake concerning the soul-eater.”

I told them of Vybius’s magical past-displaying orb, the council meetings, how he calmed me simply by humming. And finally, I told them of my friendship with the elegant Viatrix. I left out nothing. Not a single moment. Not one tiny feeling. I told them everything, right up until I entered the temple in Vandermil.

“Honestly, I have given this exact same account to Valencia. I thought you knew this when I met you at the gate, Vareen. Is Valencia not an investigator? I only presumed she acted as Vinika.”

“What Valencia told us was that you were fighting your way out of hell and would need us at the portals… not a single word more,” Varick said softly.

“Child, I know the rest is harder still. Will you continue your tale, or do we ask too much?”

“You’re right, Vareen. This next part is the worst for me. But what has happened has happened and cannot be undone.” I turned to the massive Guardian I had once counted as my best friend. “Vareilious, you wish to know of my pink curls? Then I shall tell you. Hate me if you must. But I will never lie to you.”

His stern brow softened. He uncrossed his arms, a wry smile adorning his handsome face. “Yes, I wish to know of the beautiful pink ones. But this vibrant blue one is the most mesmerizing of them all. It matches the glitter upon your cheek. Makes me feel all fuzzy inside.” He winked at me. “I think I should like to know aboutitfirst.”

“Blue curl?”

“Yes. This one curl, here, in front. The one that puts the heavens to shame.” Vareilious reached out, pulling loose a curl I had tucked behind my ear, holding it in front of my face. “This one perfect curl that makes all sapphires bow down before its radiant glory. I’m jealous. Vittorio’s going on and on about it to everyone,” he whined. “Why am I the last to see it?”

When I focused on the odd lock of my hair in his giant fingers, I jumped up and ran to the nearest mirror.

It was true… I didn’t even know. My withered hand wasn’t the only thing my Vindicus had healed.

He loves me too much, I thought.The proof of that now sparkles brilliantly upon my cheek.

Reaching up, I touched the once black jagged scar across my face, my blue-tinted fingers grazing the dazzling glitter. The sapphire tattoo left by his manacle glowed in sync with my newly decorated scar. And that rich azure curl fell down over my left eye. It was truly beautiful—unique in every way. And it had all come from him, my loving husband.

I wrapped my arms around my waist, tried my best to hold the pain inside. But it felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. All my air escaped. I turned a wild, terrified gaze back to the confused trio. Vareilious recognized the dangerous state I was in. He sprang to my side, whispering his calming words over and over until I could focus once again.


Page 21

“Will this never end?” I uttered wearily.

“Hah! And you thought you could dethrone me in the control department?” He laughed. “You almost lost it just then.”

“Almostis the key word there, Sunshine,” I countered. “Youdidlose it, twice already. And we’ve yet to properly finish a single cup of tea.”

“Yeah, okay. But I’m Mr. Cool now.” He winked and displayed his trademark smirk.

I couldn’t help but laugh. “I believe you’ve been spending way too much time on layer eight, Brother. You sound ridiculous.”

“We’ve not been able to convince him of that truth, even though we’ve all tried. Perhaps wise words from loving sister will go farther in this regard.” Vareen winked at us.

I collapsed back into my chair and sighed. “Well, Vareilious, I can’t yet tell you about the blue curl. I didn’t even know that’d happened.”

I relived my meltdown in the temple, told them about my pity party and the river of tears that accompanied it. Then I told them all about my vision of Varick’s ceremony here in Vanahirdem. My wretched tears returned with the painful telling.

Inhaling deeply, I paused a moment, trying to swallow the offending lump creeping up my tightening throat. I stared at my own clasped hands as I recounted my subsequent freak-out when I left what I thought was the cathedral in hell. I tried to ignore the gasps and growls as I replayed the whole battle in my mind—every blow, every drop of blood, every broken bone.

Glancing briefly at Varick, his flowing tears almost made me skip this next part. But when Vareilious took my trembling hands in his, I found the courage to continue. I cleared my throat and relied heavily upon the borrowed strength of my brother as I told them of my unwanted healing, my subsequent rebirth, and the hardest part to say out loud… my intense relationship with Vindicus. I told them of our strange blending, our bonding manacles, my transformation, and I ended my story with our impending nuptials.

All eyes were wide—some serious, some sad. And all mouths were hanging open.

“Please, don’t respond just yet. You asked me for my story. I didn’t ask you for your judgment. The me I am now, the me that loves my Angel Vindicus, is not the me that left here on the day of my sentenced execution. Those waters he dipped me in, the ones in Vandermil, the ones in hell… they didn’thealme. They re-created me. I am more than I was. But a great deal of me was sacrificed to make it so.” All remained silent at my request until I could breathe normally again, until I could calm my racing heart. “Then, in stepped Valencia. I told her verbatim the story you just heard and that’s when she did this. Well… what thisusedto be.” I pointed to the shimmering scar marking my face.

Varick and Vareilious both growled.

I laughed. “Growl not. It’s the best thing that could have happened. Her blow opened my eyes. And the rest you know, pretty much.”

“No, you still didn’t mention the blue,” Varick whispered.

“Yes, well, you won’t like it, I’m sure.” I finally met his sad gaze. “Those are all the places Apollyon, my Vindicus, touched me. Those are the places he healed me.”

“Not true, lovely warrior. I saw you after you made it out of hell. The scar was black and your hand was withered,” he said. “You are mistaken on their origin.”

I laughed. “Yes, it’s true all right. When I left you three standing at the gate, I transported to the spot where you first found me, Varick. The place marking the portal.” My gaze remained fixed with his. “I fell upon my knees and cried, pleaded to be shown a way back into hell.”

He gasped. “What? Are you mad?”

I told him then about my final confrontation with Apollyon—his sweet words of undying love, his promise of eternal happiness, how both our hearts shattered within each other’s chest. And then I told him about the bitter choice my bonded Angel let me make. Well,forcedme to make… when he relaxed his worshipping embrace.

Tears streamed down Varick’s regal face, matching my own.

“… And when you three made me realize I couldn’t go back to Ashgard, and I no longer fit in Vanahirdem anymore… I didn’t know where else to go but to the only man who still loved me. The only one who accepts me as I now am. He is the only other person who truly wants to be with me. Alas, his is the only home to which I cannot physically return.”

“So… then how is it he touched you?” Vareen asked.

I told them how I felt something move within me, the disturbance in the air. About how his hand appeared from nothing, all the beautiful words we exchanged, and how he had touched me. Then I confessed to them about how he had intended to remove his manacle, to unbind his chain to me—leaving me unfettered as I eternally roamed the layers, damaged, shattered, broken beyond repair.

“I couldn’t live like that. I can’t imagine suffering through such a solitary hell as the one that would leave me in—were he to remove his manacle, take away our bond, dissolve our union.” I turned to Vareilious. “Don’t hate me for admitting this, old friend. But had he done as he intended, had he reclaimed his manacle, I would have forced your hand, Brother. I would have made youendme.”

Horror filled his eyes. “That’s the most selfish thing I have ever heard.”

“I know. Forgive me. I am truly that selfish, that miserably selfish.” I squeezed his hand. “So now you know the truth of it. The truth concerning the blue you love so well, good Vareilious… ishim. The coloring I am now blessed with ishismark.”

I turned my tormented gaze back to the first husband I’d lost. I wanted so badly to wipe the tears from his regal face.

“We are as woven together as are you and I, Varick. So, I am part Vanir, part human, and now… part demon-Angel.” I smiled bitterly, regretfully.

Chapter 28

Vareen

(vah-REEN)

 

 

 

“Some fresh tea.” Vareen smiled as she handed me a steaming cup. “You must actually drink it this timebeforeit turns cold.

All eyes were on me. I felt their weight. Yet no one spoke of my pain. No one mentioned a word concerning my story. We sipped the tea, ate sweet cakes, and gratefully kept the conversation to idle chatter only.

Vareilious told us of his recent summonses and of taking over for the missing Vittorio. I only vaguely answered their questions concerning our whereabouts. Then Vareen cleared her angelic throat.

“Your story is tragic beyond imagination. I must admit we all played a horrible role. Each of us claim some responsibility, only helping to cause the outcome. I hope one day you can truly forgive us for not preparing and teaching you better… especially about the Nether and the Otherworld. But the past is dead and gone. I speak for all Vanir now when I tell you we will spend eternity making this up to you, making amends.Ifyou will allow us to do so. But child, there are some parts of your story where you err.”

“Err? How so? I told you exactly what happened. I didn’t lie.”

“No, you did not lie. The erring comes from you not knowing the truth in all that happened. First, you now know that wasn’t Vandermil. There is no such place. I can only assume your mind created Vandermil to protect you from the horrible reality. Jenevier, your brand new soul was never meant to be skipping through hell.” Vareen sighed and set her teacup down. “Perhaps… perhaps it was a good thing Ahriman found you there.”

“Mother.”

“Hear me out, Varick.” She turned back to me. “Ahriman, your Vybius, was once a great Angel—powerful and benevolent. Yet he fell during the first heavenly war. He is as dark as a fallen one can be, Jenevier. Do not think him your friend or ally. I only meant you were lucky it washimas opposed to some of the others, because of his magical tea. Ahriman had you drink it when he coaxed your soul back from the void. It’s meant to be delicious and mind numbing. His ambrosia tea is derived from a plant of the same name. Yet he alone has the ability to use it as he did with you. Ahriman’s deceiving nectar causes a feeling of euphoria, a blessed feeling of joy and love. But only for a time and only while you’re near him. You see. Histalent, the way he wins over souls to their side, is a terrible one indeed. He is blessed with the ability to tempt any maid, no matter her heart. It’s what he does. And none can do it better.”

I collapsed heavily back against my chair. What she said made perfect sense. Every time that beautiful amethyst man touched me, I calmed. He made me happy, made me feel comfortable and loved.

“Yes,” Vareilious said, nodding his head, staring at nothing. “And those he cannot woo, he takes. If he can’t win over your heart with his lying words of love, he’ll break you. Take your body by force, viciously so… until all your fight’s gone and your will has been crushed. He is a master at what he does.”

What? Vybius? I can scarce believe that. He was as kind and gentle as a lamb. No. Vareilious must be mistaken.

“Think for a moment, little Angel,” Vareen said. “If your eyes deceived you of even the holy temple, what else could you have been mistaken about? Listen to me, child. You now know you left the Nether and entered the Underworld. If you were in hell, how could that realm possibly contain the healing waters of the Vanir… if no Vanir are truly there?”

“What are you saying?”

“What I am saying, child, is this. The reason you were not simply healed within those waters but were remade instead, was because their pool does not contain our healing waters. Their basin holds the primordial ooze. It’s why you wereblendedwith Apollyon. And it also explains the passion you shared and the love that will always bind the two of you. You are right in saying you were reborn. You wererecreatedwith him… together.”

Out of everything this revered seer had said, I knewthisto be the truest words she could have spoken. It was as obvious to my heart as it was to my changed soul.

“And…” She paused briefly, waiting for our eyes to meet. “You are very much mistaken in your vision of the happenings here in Vanahirdem.”

“Mother, don’t do this,” Varick warned.

“She did not lie to us and I will never withhold what I know to be truth from her.”

“We were all in the temple,” Vareilious said, his voice sounding distant. “I felt your presence, just as you described.”

“Yes, we all did,” Vareen added.

“But… I thought you said my vision was wrong?”

My question was met with silent trepidation. The three Guardians exchanged worried looks.

“You were wrong about the ceremony,” Varick whispered. “Wrong about what it was we had gathered for.”

“It was indeed a celebration, sweet child,” Vareen said. “But the occasion was a ceremony to welcome back our daughter who had been long absent us, Valencia. Our children were robed and blessed that day. Valadrog and I bound them in their roles and passed our mantle of leadership on to them.”

Vareen smiled sorrowfully as she watched her world-shattering news sink fully into my destroyed heart.

“So… the robed woman beside Varick… wasn’t his bride?” I spoke in a haze, felt like I was floating above my seated form. Looking down into my own drained face.

“It was his sister,” Vareilious softly answered.

I looked to my dearest friend and love from another life, my Varick. I could barely make out his angelic face through my building tears. He had never stopped loving me. My Alzeen had never held another. He’d waited on me his whole life. He’s mine. He always had been. That gloriously horrible revelation stopped time within me. If I had ever doubted my role as fool, those doubts were now shattered.

My recent words about my relationship and the marriage bed I shared with my husband, Apollyon, rang loudly within my betraying ears. They cut through my heart with a serrated blade, leaving a jagged, gaping wound with their passing. How much pain could I possibly inflict upon another living creature? Would I have been able to sit still while he told me the joyous story of making love to another woman? No. I could not have.

Were our roles reversed, I would now be sitting before three dismembered, mutilated heavenly corpses—feeding off the hate and violence I would be welcoming into my blackening heart. I am more devil than Angel. Nay, I can never claim the titleAngel. Varick had been right all those years ago during my training, before my Pyrolysis. He knew then, yet denied it within his heart… I am Demon.

“How you must hate me. I have come full circle and wish once more only to meet my violent end. I wish now for a ceasing to my wretched existence. I will never forgive myself for this ultimate betrayal of you, Varick. And you… you sat there quietly as I… as I told you all about… all about making love to—”

“Don’t say it again,” Varick interrupted. “I cannot bear either name you may give him.”

“Apologies… sincerest apologies. I have not the words.” I numbly stood to leave. “One day, I will hurt your strange sister for not telling me the truth of it all. This I swear. Yet the fault lies with me. I can never be sorry enough.”

Varick grabbed my retreating hand.

“Don’t go. My heart is shattered, yes, but if you walk out that door I will probably never see you again. This guilt you now carry will force you to hide your face from me forever. I wouldn’t care to take another breath if that were our future. You may no longer love me, but I cannot live apart from you. Promise me now you will never leave Vanahirdem, not even for a moment, without coming to me and saying thus from your own lips.”

I couldn’t even raise my head to answer him this simple request. “I so promise. It’s the very least I can do to honor you.”

“Then swear it as well,” he begged.

Never were any words harder for me to say. “I… swear it.”

I wanted nothing more than to flee. My insides were shaking. I wanted to vomit. I had to fight the change I could feel coming on. Vashti wished only to fly away from this place, from this guilt, from this pain, forever.

“Your home is as you left it. It waits for you now,” Vareen said.

“I do not deserve such kindness. Gratitude.”

I bowed low before the three people who had once meant the most to me. The same three people whom I had only just crushed with my words, my deeds, and my actions.

“I’ll walk you home,” Vareilious said.

“I know the way, Brother. I am weary and wish now only to fall into the heavenly feather bed awaiting my return.”And slit my shameful throat as I lay upon it, I thought.

“That’s exactly what I thought you’d say. And now, tiny warrior-girl, you arereallysingle. You are changed, brand new on the inside. No longer is your heart bound to anyone within the realm of the living. Now it’smyturn to make you smile, Princess.”

Vareilious winked and tickled my ribs, refusing to stop until he pulled a genuine laugh from my trembling lips. His smirking smile mirrored the familiar ones from our past as he snatched me up in his giant arms and ran from the house.

“She needs you now, Varick. More than she did when first she came to us,” Vareen said.

“I know, Mother.”

“She has certainly become an amazing woman. I long to have her in my visions once more.”

“She is no longer my Jenevier,” Varick whispered.

“No, she is so much more than that now. How exciting—getting to spend an eternity learning all the new things about someone you have already loved for a lifetime.” Vareen smiled as she spoke.

“Vareilious still loves her so much. Now that our bond is broken, now that she is no longer my Anicee, my brother will not tarry with her.”

Vareen chuckled. “Nor should he. She is more beautiful than lilies. More magical than Elves. And owns a heart as big as all creation. Truly, a creature like none other.”

“Can she ever love me again?”

“I don’t believe she ever stopped. That tiny creature tried to slay the entire host of hell… all because she loved you too much, Varick.”

“Yet, she found another love whilst in hell… one worthy of Fairytale status.” He half laughed. “How am I ever to compete withthat?”

“The heart is an amazing thing, my son. It is not set as stone, but grows with every person you allow to enter it.”

“She only just lost her husband but two days ago.”

“Varick, that incredible young lady just losttwohusbands, two epic loves within less than a fortnight. She possesses strength I never dreamed her capable of, and a grace which is awe-inspiring. Like it or not, my son, her unique bonding with the darkest of Angels will prove to be her greatest asset. Imagine it. Just how unbelievable can one tiny little human be? She unknowingly and without purposeful intent, changed the very heart of the immortal Guardian of Hell. I was certain Apollyon wasn’t formed with the capacity for tears.”

“The same thought was in me as well. When she was remade, she said theyblended. That alone would have destroyed a Vanir—blending with Apollyon.”

“Yes. God is wise beyond our understanding. You wondered why she wasn’t Vanir, since she was formed from you. Now you know but a tiny piece of a much greater plan.”

“Her humanity. That’s her greatest gift,” Varick whispered.

“Yes, my son. Now do you understand? Now do you see why the holy Vanir are simply servants to the most amazing and resilient beings in all creation? They are… perfectly… flawed.”

Varick smiled. “Yes. Perfectly flawed.”


Page 22

Chapter 29

Varick

(VAH-rick)

 

 

 

“Will you finally give me the chance you know I have long deserved?”

“You were my truest friend in another life, Vareilious. Respect my wishes now and do not press love upon me. I may be smiling with you presently, but my capacity for love is absent. It has been but days.”

“You didn’t say no. So…that’sgood.” He smiled and poked my belly.

“Can you lend me the comfort of a friend? This is one of those days when I really just need a hug, andonlya hug.”

“What you are asking for is support. You want to let the worries of the world melt away while you hide yourself inside my protective embrace. This I can do for you, lovely maiden… every day for the rest of forever.”

We lay there on that giant bed and I curled up against him. He wrapped his powerful arms around me and I closed my eyes. Vareilious was right. Everything else in my life faded away as my eyelids grew heavy. I’d never felt so small yet so safe in all my days.

You are more beautiful than heaven, were the last words I heard my Guardian say before exhaustion claimed me and I slept.

When I woke, well-rested and refreshed, Vareilious was gone. I found his note lying upon the pillow. I giggled as I tried to make out his scratchy script. His writing always looked sharp, angry, exaggerated. I managed to glean he had received yet another summons.

After making some tea, I took a long bath. Then I sat in front of my looking glass staring blindly at my oddly colorful reflection.

“God surely must’ve painted me. I look like the whole of nature.”

As my hair slowly dried and the long curls became more defined, my image reminded me of my secret gift from Vittorio, Princess Falls. I wanted to go back there, desperately.

I yawned as I stepped into the warming sunlight—absently stretching wide my arms, popping my back. All was right with the world, for the moment. But I’d take what I could get. I flexed my shoulders and my lethal wings expanded from my sides in all their radiant glory.

“How is it you now don your wings minus your mask? Do you no longer need Vashti?”

“You’re losing your touch, old friend. I tasted your delicious scent upon the air the moment I opened my door.”

“Old friend? Is that all I am to you now?” Varick asked.

I laughed. “I count myself lucky you don’t strike me down for naming you friend. I will not press my good fortune further.”

“You jest.”

“Not even slightly,” I whispered.

Varick had been leaning against the side of my home. He moved to stand in front of me.

“What a messed-up pair we are, you and I,” he said softly.

Brushing back a loose curl, he gently tucked it behind my ear and let the backs of his fingers trace a tingling path down my cheek.

“I’m the messed-up one. You… you are ever regal, ever elegant. I’m reminded of the time when you first stepped from the shadows and revealed yourself to me.”

Varick laughed. “And you swore you couldn’t breathe if you looked upon me.”

“It was true. It very nearly still is,” I admitted.

“You flatter me.”

“Not in the least.”

“Did I stop you from leaving?”

“Well, Iwasthinking about a private little paradise I’d like to visit for a time.”

“Oh, really? Have you forgotten your promise so soon?”

“I will never forget your only request of me, Prince Varick.”

“So you were coming to find me then?”

“Yes, in a few moments.”

“To tell me of your pending sabbatical or to invite me along on your little holiday?” His eyes sparkled and danced as he spoke.

I looked away. “I would never be so bold. I leave those dreams upon my pillow when I rise.”

“Can I touch you?”

“No, Varick. I am not clean. Not anymore. And my heart is no longer a thing of beauty… nor is it mine own. Your majestic touch would be too painful to bear. I will not soil you. Nor will I let you soil yourself in a moment of weak remembrance.”

“You will notletme?”

He moved closer, completely blocking out the sun. I stood trembling in his giant shadow, holding my breath. When he gently caressed my shoulders, I shivered. He softly laughed at my body’s involuntary response.

“I have missed you more than you can possibly imagine,” he said.

“Oh, I can imagine. Believe me. I candefinitelyimagine. I’m still trying to absorb the unbelievable fact you never betrayed me. Never sought comfort from another… never stopped loving only me.”

“For me, for my heart… things are as they were the day we were parted. It’s like time stood still and now the clock has begun anew. In my feeble heart, you are yet my Anicee, returning from your last summons.” He tenderly placed his hands on either side of my neck, caressing my cheeks with his thumbs. “I swore these words would never cross my lips. But, Jenevier, you are more beautiful and far lovelier than even my inflated dreams of you.”

“You are too kind. I differ now only because I betrayed you. Please, do not look upon my strange colorings as anything more than horrid flaws—testaments to my ongoing failures.”

“I’m the one who failedyou.” His cheeks flushed. “And that’s the reason I was lurking outside your home. I was trying to muster the courage to beg your forgiveness. Had I been a better Guardian, you would never have been marked. Had I been an unbiased trainer, you wouldn’t have been so horribly broken. Had I been a more attentive husband, you would never have been alone when you faced Merodach and your terrible death sentence would never have been.Iam the reason for each and every harm that has befallen you, my love. If I were truly worthy of you, your first tear would never have fallen. Jenevier, do not protest my words. You are far greater than I caneverbe. Will you, one day, find enough compassion within your magnificent heart to forgive all I have done to you? This, my precious Angel, I humbly beg of you.”

Varick was on his knees, silent tears flowing freely down his chiseled face. He held my hands in his, pleading.

“Varick, I forgave you even before I was marked. There is not, nor will there ever be, a sin against you in my heart. To me, you are perfection and above reproach.”

He wrapped his angelic arms around my waist and laid his head on my chest.

“Gratitude, my love,” he whispered. “Thank you.”

I stroked his beautiful silver hair and kissed the top of his head. “You never even had to ask.”

“One day, can we start over? Do you think one day we’ll have another chance?”

“Perhaps… one day. I am still a married woman, remember?”

He squeezed me tighter. “I love you, my Princess.”

“And I you, my sweet Prince.”

We stayed like that, holding one another in the yard outside my home, for hours. No one bothered us. Each passerby respectfully looked the other way.

Neither one was willing to break the magical moment binding us. Our tedious future was too fragile a thing to take even one breath for granted. So, we did not.

Chapter 30

Vanahirdem

(van-ah-HEAR-dem)

 

 

 

Valadrog and Vareen held a great celebration to honor mine and Valencia’s long-awaited return. There was food, music, and dancing. All worries were forgotten and a great time was had by all. No one pulled me this way or that. I danced with all my wonderful friends and I got the chance to become much closer to the ones I hadn’t known very well before my exile.

After an entire day of just enjoying my angelic family, I begged pardon to leave. Gracefully thanking my charming hosts over and over for such grand kindness and overwhelming love, I politely kissed Valadrog and Vareen farewell.

I left the waning party more content than I’d thought possible. I was so nervous about the celebration before it started that I almost flew off into the clouds. Vareilious talked me down and basicallycarriedme to the event. I’ll have to think of a glorious way to show my gratitude for his bullheaded stubbornness. I would never have wanted to miss this.

“Aye, an’ where are ye running off tae, wee rabbit?”

Vittorio caught up to me, picked me up from behind, and tossed me onto one of his gigantic shoulders—causing me to get a terrible case of the giggles. He held my hands out, spinning around while I screamed and laughed.

“Since when didyoutwo get so close?” Vareilious asked as he approached.

“Haven’t you heard, Brother? Those two disappeared for a few days,” Vinika said. “They didn’t tell a soul where they were going and they both came back with tightly sealed lips.”

“Vittorio? Sealed lips?” Vareilious snorted. “Impossible.”

“Aye, I may talk a lot aboot battle, but I nae kiss an’ tell, Brother.”

Vittorio kept dancing around in our circle while holding out my hands. I couldn’t have stopped giggling even if I’d tried, which I did not. I hadn’t been this blissfully happy since… No, I’ll never admit to being this blissfully happy before. No one was waiting for me, and no one was depending on me. I had no duties or commitments to weigh down my thoughts. I had nowhere to go and nothing of import to do. I reveled in this new unfettered type of freedom. It was exhilarating, and I was determined to enjoy every glorious moment.

“You mean… you kissed Jenevier?” Vareilious asked, eyes wide.

“Aye, Brother. That’s for us tae know an’ ye nae tae find oot.”

He lifted me off his shoulders, gently stood me up, and held one hand over my head as he twirled me around and around like a ballerina. Even Vinika joined in the laughter when he released me—my wobbly legs and dizzy head almost got the best of me. I finally sat down and waited for my world to stop spinning.

“Ugh, Vittorio. Are you trying to make me lose my supper?”

“Jenevier, is it true you spent days away with this disreputable fellow?”

“Yes, Vareilious. It is exceedingly true.” I smiled at Vittorio and he shot me a secret wink.

“When was this?” he demanded. “And how did I not know about it?”

“Aye, it was back when ye had tae cover my summonses for me, Brother.”

“You mean to tell me… you were hiding out withmywoman while I did your job?” Vareilious glared at Vittorio, then me, and back again.

“Well, she dinnae say she wasyerwoman. But then again, we were quite busy an’ yer name just dinnae come up.” Vittorio plopped down next to me and began pulling up blades of grass, weaving them through my curls. “Aye now, ye dunnae have enough color, Lass. I believe ye need some green here… an’ here… an’ a wee bit more over here…”

I was giggling, shaking my head back and forth to knock the grass out.

Varick joined our growing group of friends and placed a calming hand upon Vareilious’s tense shoulder. “It sounds like this is where the party moved to.”

“Aye, Brother, a party follows me wherever I go,” Vittorio sang.

“We were just discussing the private little outing they’re keeping secret,” Vareilious said.

“Aye, that ooting wasnae secret, Brother. Now, what we did whilst on the ooting,that’sthe secret. Right, Princess?”

I laughed. “Aye, demons cannae drag it from me.” I tried to mimic Vittorio’s accent. I failed miserably.

“Ye should thank me, Brother. How’d ye think she learned all those cool dance moves?”

Vittorio pinched my side as he leaned in, giving me a quick kiss on my back. He kept adding more grass to my curls.

“He taught her to dance?” Vareilious turned his questions directly at me. “Jenevier, is this true or is he just flapping his mouth to hear his own vile voice?”

“I’m sworn to secrecy, good Vareilious. I will neither confirm nor deny anything about our little holiday.” I punched Vittorio in the thigh when he yanked hard on one of my curls. “Iwillconfirm this, though. I am wholly exhausted. I leave you now to your frivolity and beg regretful departure of your beloved company. Varick, will you walk me home? We must have a word or two, I beg you.”

Vittorio gave me a quick peck on the cheek. I returned the favor. Varick held out his hand, helping me up. I generously passed out final hugs, kisses, and farewells before I took his proffered arm, slowly making our way to my ethereal domicile.

“You’re leaving, aren’t you?”

I glanced up at him from the corner of my eye. “For a while.”

“Can I ask where you’re going?”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Are there any demons, Angels, or other Vanir at your secret destination?”

His worries brought a smile to my face. “There aren’t even any humans, dear Guardian.”

“When will you return?”

“I’m not certain.” I pulled on a piece of grass dangling from my curls. “When I tire of being away, I suppose.”

“You won’t be returning to Vanahirdem, will you?”

“Someday… perhaps.”

Varick stopped walking, halting my steps as well. “Under the circumstances, I cannot grant your leave.”

I laughed. “Grant my leave? I promised to tell you if I were going. I never agreed to having ask your permission.”

He stared up at the clouds and released a heavy sigh. “You also promised we’d try again, the two of us.”

“I remember sayingperhapswe would try again one day. I don’t remember saying I promise.”

“It was implied,” he whispered.

“Listen, Varick. I would love nothing more than for us to be the way we were. But we’re not. I would love nothing more than for the whole marriage misunderstanding thing to never have happened. But it did. I would love nothing more than to be your wife, your Anicee one day. But notthisday. We’re strangers now, you and I. Our paths have changed. And forget not. I am yet wed in every way that matters to a man I love with a ferocity I hadn’t known I possessed. Vareen no longer has visions of me and no summons will ever contain my image again. I am an abomination. You know this in your head even if you deny it in your heart. I am destined to leave this beautiful city. Prolonging my departure will only make things harder when I finally must go.”

“Then I shall accompany you. I am your Guardian still; I’ve stayed by your side the whole of your life. It is only right and natural that I should continue as before.”

“Varick, you haven’t been my Guardian Angel since I was but a child. You have much work to do here. You can’t leave and I won’t let you. You’re not invited.”

“How about Alzeen? Would you invite him?”

I laughed. “Ahh, you would try to tempt me? Are you Angel or devil?”

“I am neither.” He began walking once more. “When will you be leaving?”

“Right now. While everyone’s busy enjoying each other’s company.”

We reached my house. Varick opened the door and followed me inside. I packed up the precious few things I owned and released a sigh as I turned to my lost love and smiled. His eyes were so sad, I almost changed my mind.

“Aren’t you even going to tell Vareilious goodbye?” he whispered.

I snorted. “Now you speak madness. He wouldneverlet me leave. He would watch me always and follow me everywhere.”

“As would I.”

“Yes, but you are rational enough to see that this is something Ihaveto do… for me.”

“Will Vittorio be able to find you?”

“For a time, perhaps.”

“Tell me goodbye properly, Milady.”

I gave Varick a hug and kissed his cheek. He didn’t release me, yet slowly moved his lips ever closer. He never took his eyes from mine, yet he kissed me not.

“Jenevier, I wasn’t remade. I haven’t changed. I still love you fiercely… even more so,” he whispered, his sweet breath tickling my lips. “Think about how you would feel if our roles were reversed, ifIwas the one walking away fromyou.”

“I knowexactlyhow I’d feel. I’ve already felt it. The loss of you has already destroyed me. I’m so sorry that my mistakes are causing you such pain. It truly grieves my worthless heart. But Varick, Iwasremade. Iamchanged. Besides, I yet wear Vindicus’s mana—”

He cut off my words when his mouth found mine. He gently kissed me, and then once more, just a little firmer. His third kiss was fringed with raw hunger, and the many others that soon followed were passionate, mind-altering.

When at last he released me, I swayed.

Looking down at the strong hands now steadying me, I saw beautiful olive skin. My surprised gaze instantly met Alzeen’s. My innocent, loving, glorious Alzeen. Had I tried, I would never have been able to guess what seeing my beloved standing before me would do to my mind, to my heart… what it would do to my trembling soul. I knew he was Varick still, but I was instantaneously weak when my eyes beheld his mask. I always would be.

“I wished to hold you once more withthesearms. To kiss you one last time withtheselips,” he said. “We never got to finish what we started in the Valley of Trees, you and I.”

My eyes were drawn to his magical markings, my fingertips naturally followed. This man mesmerized me. I was now, and always would be, wholly powerless in his presence. His mere touch sent painful goose bumps across my tremulous body.

“You lied to me… Youaredevil.” My voice caught in my throat, sounding more like a rasp than a whisper.

Alzeen’s mischievous smile, coupled with the wicked glint in his eye, only punctuated my words. This man owned me. With but a look, no one else even existed. I could only hope he didn’t realize it. When he removed my tunic, easily slid it over my head without protest or resistance… that hope faded. He knew. He’dalwaysknown. And he now took full advantage of that delicious knowledge.

I did not break my vow to Vindicus that night. Yet, I bent it to the point of snapping.


Page 23

Chapter 31

Shaemon

(SHAY-mun)

 

 

 

The cool water flowing between my wiggling toes as they dangled in the lipid pool was refreshing and peaceful. I lay on the soft grass, slowly moving my feet back and forth, listening to the ripples softly lapping against the other bank. The warm sun on my face, my hands behind my head, eyes closed… this was paradise in its truest form.

I thought at first perhaps clouds had moved in, shading my resting spot. Carefully opening one eye just a tiny bit, I held my hand up to block the light. But it was no cloud, only a little man. I didn’t jump nor did I sit up. I simply closed my eye and remained blissfully at ease.

I smiled lazily. “Hello there, stranger. Nice day, isn’t it?”

“What are you doing in this place, Lady?”

“Well, this ismyplace. And as for what I’m doing here, I’m relaxing. Want to join me? It feels divine.”

“Yourplace? How can this place be yours? You don’t even look like you belong on Lyra.”

“Yes, this ismyplace. It can be mine because a great warrior Angel gave it to me. And if I don’t look as if I’m from Lyra, pray tell. Where do I look like I hail from?”

“Well, you look like perhaps you sprang from the ground like the rest of these colored stones around here,” he quipped.

I chuckled. “Sprang from the ground? Are you saying I’m a troll?”

“I don’t know what a troll looks like where you come from, but you don’t look like any troll I’ve ever seen.”

“Oh really? And exactly how many trolls have you seen?” I couldn’t help the pure enjoyment I was getting from teasing this tiny man.

“That doesn’t matter,” he huffed.

“No, I suppose it doesn’t. Whatdoesmatter is that you’re blocking my sun.”

“Yoursun? Did the Angel givethatto you as well?”

“What if he did? It’s not like I could hide it away and not share it with anyone. So if you want to believe I own the sun, tell me. Does it shine any less bright upon your back since this little revelation?”

“No, I guess not.”

“Then what harm can come from that beingmysun, or from this beingmyplace? Can you not enjoy the beauty all around you now that you know it belongs to me?”

“You talk funny.”

“Do I?”

“Yeah. All your words go around in circles.”

I had to chuckle. “Smart boy.”

“I’m not a boy. I’m a full grown Fairy.”

“You don’t say, a real Fairy, huh? Where are your wings?”

“Hmpft. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

I smiled. “We hardly know each other well enough forthat, now, do we?”

He only grunted.

“Very well, how about names? You have one, do you not? Would you like to share it with me?”

“What would it matter? You haven’t eventrulylooked upon me,” he pouted. “My name could be this or that. A fat lot of good it’d do. You wouldn’t know the difference if ever we ran into each other again.”

“Hmm… Well, now I’m puzzled. Which is it? This, or That?”

“Wha… what are you talking about?”

“Your name. Which is it? You said it could be This or it could be That. Is it a riddle?”

“Pssht. Now you’re just being silly.”

“But isn’t it much more fun than being so terribly serious?”

“You’re a strange lady,” he grumbled. “You look funny, too.”

“Well, now. First I talk funny and now Ilookfunny. Are we playing a game of swapping compliments? I’m afraid you’ll lose at this rate.” I smiled again, I couldn’t help myself. This little Fairy was turning into too much fun.

“It wasn’t a compliment and it wasn’t derogatory, either. You just look and talk different than anyone I’ve ever met before.”

“Ah now, that’s much better.DifferentI can live with.Funnysort of hurt my feelings. But different is good. I’ve always been called different.”

“Is it because of your hair? Or how you’re all… strange and glowy?”

I laughed. “Now I’m strange? This just keeps getting better and better. Am I such an oddity? Will you cage me and require coin for a viewing?”

“Umm, I can’t understand you anymore.”

I smiled again. “Apologies.”

It didn’t seem as if my little visitor was going to be leaving any time soon. So I sat up and stretched my arms, leaned forward slightly, and dove into the pristine pool. Scooping up a few pearls, I resurfaced right in front of him.

“Would you like one? They’re quite beautiful and perfectly round. Here. This one seems to change colors depending on how you turn it. Would you like this one?”

He cautiously took the lovely pearl but kept his keen eyes focused on me. “So, you’re a Mermaid. I’ve never seen one lying in the sun before.”

“I’ve been called a Mermaid many times before. But, no. I’m not a Mermaid,” I said teasingly. “What do you mean? Have you truly seen a Mermaid before? I mean, well, one not lying out in the sun.”

“Of course,” he huffed haughtily. “The fact you obviously haven’t only proves what I said before. You’re notfromhere.”

“I never claimed to be.” I flew up out of the water and gently landed behind him.

He gasped. “You… youdohave wings.”

“Ahh, now you’ve seen mine. It’s only fair you show me yours.” I winked at him, mischievously.

“But I-I d-don’t…”

I laughed. “Calm yourself. I was only playing around. But I would like to know your name. Mine is Jenevier Olesia Embarr. I am very pleased to meet you, good sir.”

I bowed low before him and he took a trembling step back.

I grabbed his tiny forearm. “Careful now. I don’t wish you to fall into my pond, unawares.”

He gasped. “Are you going to eat me?”

“Eatyou? Eww, now why would I want to go and do a thing like that?” I squeezed his arm. “Besides, there’s not enough meat on you for even a snack. Where did you come from?”

“I-I came fr-from Lycini.”

“Lycini? Never heard of it.”

“It’s just on the other side of the west mountain, across the green expanse.”

“Hmm, so you’ve traveled quite a long way. What did you come here for?”

My question was met with only silence.

“Oooh, it’s a secret then. Well now, if what you’re seeking is here inmyplace, then you shall have to ask me for it. You’re not a thief, are you?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“Well, if you plan on asking something from me, you’ll have to tell me what it is. And if you tell me what it is, then it won’t be a secret anymore.”

“I guess not,” he mumbled.

“And if it will no longer be a secretthen, why should it be a secretnow?”

“Umm…”

“Besides, if I knew what you wanted from me, I could help you look for it.”

“True…” He drummed his fingers across his pointed little chin.

“Suit yourself. I’m going for a swim. But know this. Your welcome here isn’t indefinite. I’ll only abide you snooping around for so long before I get cross with you.”

“Ack, it’s a green stone. About yea big,” he explained, using his thumb and forefinger. “And it has tiny purple veins running all through it,” he said quickly, nervously. “It’s shaped like a triangle and the top point is almost the same color as your skin.”

“See there? That wasn’t so hard, now, was it?”

“Umm… The Queen will be dreadfully angry with me,” he fretted, wringing his little hands. “I’ll tell her you were going to season a stew with me.”

“Season a stew?” I raised a single eyebrow. “So you’re a would-be thief and a premeditated liar.”

“No, no. I’m just a messenger on an errand.” He began fidgeting; cutting his beady little eyes this way and that. “I told her to send one of her guards. But she refused. Said she didn’t want everyone to know about this place. Since I was the only one who’d already been here before—”

“You meanmyplace?” I cut short his rambling. “You’ve been tomyplace before?”

“Y-yes.”

“How did you come to find it?”

“It was purely by accident, I swear. I was running from…” He paused.

“Running from what? A giant Angel, perhaps. With long silver hair and billowy wings?”

He gasped, his eyes went wide. “You know him?”

“Ahh, I know him well. Tell me this, little Fairy. Why was he chasing you?”

“I don’t know. I did nothing wrong.” He crossed his skinny arms over his tiny chest.

“Hmm, it’s not right to say a summons came down for you when you’d done nothing wrong.”

“A summons?”

“He caught you. There’s no way around that.” My eyes narrowed, threateningly. “What was your punishment, little one? What did Vittorio have to do to you?”

“He… he removed my wings.”

“Ahh, now I see. You must’ve done something quite terrible indeed. A Fairy, having lost his wings? It must be a great shame to you.”

Silence again.

“Then did your crime have anything to do with this peculiar stone your Queen sent you here to retrieve?”

“Y-yes. I took it from the Mermaids. But I lost it here when the Angel snatched me.”

“You were severely punished and lost your wings. Yet you would take the stone again? What do you think your punishment will be this time? I should think Vittorio wouldn’t be so easy with you a second time. I know him well. He’s vicious and deadly.” I gave him an evil little smile.

“Ack…” He started fidgeting nervously again, wringing his hands.

“What is it you could possibly fearmorethan angering a giant Death Angel?”

“D-D-Death Angel?”

“Yes, if need be,” I said. “What did he tell you before? Why did you lose your wings?”

The strange little man snubbed his pointy nose up at me. “He didn’t tell me why. He just chased me in here and tore them off.”

“You lie.” Without another word, Vashti stood before the terrified Fairy. Complete with wings, claws, and glowing ruby eyes. “Would you like to change your answer? Or shall you stick with the disgustingly perverse version you just spit out?”

“Aiyee! Don’t harm me. I’ll tell! I’ll tell!”

“Start with your name,” I hissed.

“It’s Shaemon, Shaemon Green. Everyone just calls me Shae. Our Queen sent me on a quest to obtain a piece of the trilogy stone. She already has the earth stone. I was sent for the water stone. And my friend Raymon, he was sent to retrieve the sky stone.”

“Then, wherein did your quest turn sour, little man? Or was the intent soiled from the beginning?”

“Huh?”

“Ugh…” I rolled my eyes. “I have been in many places, among many races. My speech has become a spackled deed to them all. Let me ask you a different way.” I sighed. “Okay, so you were sent to get this stone. What did you do to warrant punishment from a Death Angel? Or was it the mission itself, and not your actions, that was deemed to be wrong?”

“Oh, well… I had tostealthe stone.” He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s not like I could just buy one.”

“No. Stealing alone wouldn’t have cost you your wings. Stop dancing around my question and tell me. I will find out sooner or later,” I warned. “I’m certain you’d do well for yourself to make it sooner.”

“The three stones together, placed within the scepter, shifts all the magic of Lyra to the wand and the one who wields it,” he said.

I started laughing then. Not just regular laughter, belly-holding laughter. “Are you serious? Or are you mad?”

“What do you find so humorous?” he huffed.

“Tell me this, little one. Are Fairies the guardians of the earth stone, Mermaids guardians of the water stone, and some mountain dwellers guardians of the sky stone?”

“Why, yes. That’s it, precisely!” His eyes grew impossibly wide.

“And the Queen of the Fairies, she wants to rule over the Mermaids and the mountain dwellers?”

“Why, yes. How did you know?”

“You havegotto be kidding me.” I rolled my eyes again. “Tell me one thing more… Why?”

“Why? Why what?”

“Why does your Queen want to rule them all?”

“Well… because… because…”

“Because she wants all other races to bow down only to her? Because she wants to steal all magic and keep it in her own greedy little hands? Because she feels that fairness and equality are unjust and evil things?”

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