If you haven’t read the previous chapters, START HERE.
This version has not been proofread yet and may contain errors.
“You’re getting married?” Elysia squealed in a pitch that was just a tad too high for Alyx’s ears to handle, her light brown curls bobbing around her head as she vibrated with shock.
“Yup,” Alyx said, rubbing at her ears. She wondered if there’d be any permanent damage. “Getting married.”
Elysia’s deep-set eyes fixed on Alyx and she suddenly felt like she was about to be dissected. “You’re getting married.”
“That’s what I said.”
Alyx snorted. “The last time I checked, he was my boyfriend of over a year.”
Elysia’s mouth gapped open as if she wanted to say something, actually lots of things, but she just kept closing then opening it.
Why was everyone having this reaction?
Alyx let out a huff and leaned against the wall, her legs outstretched across her bed. They were both sitting on her bed in their shared apartment in the West End area of Saint Joseph. West End had once been a mass of industrial warehouses but it had gone through a gentrification in the last twenty-odd years, new apartments sprouting up among the old buildings like snowdrops among gravestones.
Her bedroom was simply furnished, the aged wallpaper of pale roses now peeling in places, dating the room, but she liked it. She liked anything old. Opposite her bed was a large bookcase filled with books that took up an entire wall. Her study desk sat under her casement window. Across another wall was a series of posters all showing various medieval swords and daggers with intricate handles and bejeweled sheaths. A light warm breeze wafted in through the window causing her wind chime to tinkle, promising a lovely summer to come.
Elysia’s voice finally cut through. “Are you…sure you want to marry him? I mean, he’s nice and all but…”
Alyx stared at the replica eighteenth century Chinese saber she had mounted along the back of her desk. How much easier life would be if she could just fight her way out of everything rather than having to justify herself? “Why can’t you just be happy for me?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come across that way.” Elysia scooted closer to her. “It’s just, are you sure you’ll be happy marrying…him?”
“Why wouldn’t I be happy?”
“Alyx,” she said softly, “we’ve been friends since middle school. I understand how hard it’s been for you since−”
“You don’t know anything.” Anger flared though her body.
Elysia’s face fell and the hurt was clear in her glossy gray eyes. “I’m just trying to be your friend.”
Alyx squeezed her lids shut and cursed herself for lashing out. “Sorry,” she muttered. “It just still hurts, you know…”
“I just don’t want you to do something you’re not sure of, that’s all.” Elysia leaned her head against Alyx’s shoulder. The familiar touch was a small comfort to her. She wanted to lean back into Elysia, to pull Elysia in for a hug, but she didn’t.
“Well, I’m sure. I’m marrying him, okay? I already said yes.”
“You just…don’t seem very excited.”
“I’m excited,” she protested. But even she couldn’t deny that her excitement was a thinly worn veil. She sighed. “Why does it have to be about the excitement? All that stuff fades anyway, right? Daniel is smart and kind, he has a stable job, makes good money and comes from a good family. He doesn’t have any major issues or skeletons in his closet or−”
“A personality,” Elysia muttered.
Alyx glared at her.
Elysia lifted up her hands. “I’m just saying, I don’t think your heart’s really in this.”
Alyx snorted. “My heart. Hearts are stupid things to make decisions by.”
“But Alyx, you’re not even wearing the ring.”
“I…” she trailed off. The small red velvet box was burning a hole in the back of her desk drawer. “It’s too big,” she lied. Gods, why was she lying? She shouldn’t be lying to Elysia, her oldest friend. But as much as the guilt tugged on her, she couldn’t bring herself to admit the truth.
“Really? Mr. Must Have Everything Perfect didn’t get your ring sized exactly before he gave it to you?”
Elysia gave Alyx a don’t give me that crap look. They had been friends for too long and Elysia knew when she wasn’t saying something.
Alyx let out a long breath. Maybe talking about it would help her figure out exactly what she was feeling. Or not feeling. Damn confusing feelings. Why couldn’t she just go through life without them? “I am happy. I am. I care about Daniel.”
“I just feel…” It felt like there was a void in her heart. She felt…hollow. And she didn’t know how to fix it. “I feel like…something’s missing.”
“Move over. I can’t see a damn thing.” Vix nudged Balthazar.
The three of them − Jordan, Balthazar and Vix − were sitting in the tree right outside Alyx’s second floor bedroom window. They were hidden under a Mirage, Balthazar’s inherent magical ability, and the only reason Vix had agreed to let him come along.
Balthazar no longer looked like his demon self. He had “borrowed” a local’s body, as there was no way, not even through Purgatory, for demons to physically cross over into Earth anymore, the gates between Hell and Earth having been shut over two thousand years ago, locking everyone on their respective sides. The remaining true demons on Earth had long since gone into hiding as, due to a twist in the story, all of the Seraphim of Heaven, the demons’ natural enemy, had been locked on Earth.
The only way demons could come through to Earth now was to take over a mortal’s body. Balthazar had managed to convince a male with dark hair, milk-chocolate skin and very white teeth to give up control to him; Vix didn’t want to know how. She could still see his demon face shimmering underneath. Thankfully any mortals that looked at him couldn’t.
Balthazar begrudgingly let Vix have some more space on their shared branch. “Have you put on weight?”
“I have not put on weight.”
“The branch is practically bending.”
“That’s your big mouth weighing us down.”
“Shut up, both of you,” hissed Jordan, sitting on Vix’s other side. “I can’t hear what Alyx is saying.”
The three of them fell silent and leaned closer to Alyx’s open window to watch and listen.
“There is something else…” Alyx trailed off. For a moment she seemed to look right through the window at Vix, with her bright emerald eyes. For a moment, Vix could almost forget that this incredible warrior who she’d had the honor of fighting beside more than once, remembered nothing about her. After all, Alyx looked just the same as she did when she was an immortal; same pixie face with marble-pale skin, same midnight hair that dropped like a curtain, except now it fell down past her shoulders. Vix was almost overcome with the urge to fly through her old friend’s window and pull her into a hug.
“What is it?” Elysia asked Alyx.
“It’s…nothing.” Alyx glanced away and Vix felt her heart sink a little.
Elysia sat up, her eyes gleaming wide with interest. “You’re holding out on me.”
“Really, it’s not even worth talking about.”
“Don’t you dare hold out on me or I’ll get out my deadly torture weapons that no man or woman has managed to survive.” Elysia lifted up her hands like claws and wiggled them at Alyx.
Alyx clutched her sides as if she was protecting them, her face breaking out into the first smile that Vix had seen all morning. “Alright, alright, I’ll tell you.”
Balthazar pressed even closer to the window so he was leaning slightly in front of Vix and obstructing her view. She glared at the back of his head before nudging him aside and pushing herself in front of him.
Through the window Elysia and Alyx sat with their heads together like co-conspirators. “Don’t say anything to anyone,” began Alyx, “especially not to Daniel.”
Elysia’s eyes widened. “You’re having an affair.”
Alyx shook her head. “Oh my God, Elysia, it’s not anything like that. I just haven’t told Daniel yet. I’m not sure how he’ll react. Besides I’m not sure if there’s any point in even telling him.”
“Go on. What is it? I’m dying here.”
You said it, thought Vix. Hurry up and tell us.
“A few months ago I saw a job advertised at the National Museum of Prague. It was to curate their small European War and Weaponry collection.”
“That sounds perfect for you! I mean, after finishing valedictorian in your Ancient History degree and what you already do for the Saint Joseph Museum.”
“I know. So, I applied for it and somehow got an interview.”
“Somehow? Please, any fool could see that you’re perfect for the job. When was the interview?”
“About month or so ago.”
Elysia frowned. “Really? I didn’t even know you went to Prague.”
“Nobody did. Viktor wouldn’t even give me a day off. So I rearranged his schedule so that he had back-to-back meetings during the day and I snuck off to Prague mid-morning, did my interview and was back at the Museum before he realized I was gone.”
Elysia laughed. “You didn’t! I don’t believe you.”
“I did. I even got Tomas to help me set up my work email on my phone. I sent Viktor a bunch of emails while I was on the train to make it look like I was still at work.”
“But your security card… If he checked the logs…”
Alyx grinned. “I left my card with one of the guards I’m friends with. He swiped me out at lunch time and back in at the end of lunch. Then he snuck me in when I returned and handed me back my card.”
Outside, Vix couldn’t help but grin. That was our Alyx, alright. Hidden there underneath it all this…boring mortal-ness.
Elysia shook her head at Alyx, eyes brimming with blatant admiration. “You sneaky, smart, sneaky−”
“You said sneaky.”
“Thanks, I think.”
“Okay, so you went to this interview ninja-style, and then what?”
“I thought I did well. But then I didn’t hear anything for weeks…until yesterday.” A smile crept across Alyx’s face and her eyes lit up. “I got the job.”
“Oh my God, congratulations!”
“Thanks.” Her face fell. “But I can’t take it.”
“What the hell are you talking about, you can’t take it?” Elysia screeched.
Vix screwed up her face at the sound. That girl could give a fire siren a run for its money.
“I mean…I would have to relocate to Prague. And it’s a big step in my career, lots of responsibility, very little time off initially. But Daniel just proposed and I said yes and his job is here.” Alyx inhaled and let it out in a huff.
“Well, sure, it would be hard with you guys living in two different cities. But Prague is less than two hours away by train and you and Daniel could visit each other on days off. I mean, distance can be good for couples, right?”
Alyx shook her head. “Daniel would never go for it. He wants me to move into his place next week.”
“Alyx, this is your perfect job. You’ve been slaving away for that asshole Viktor for almost four years. You practically do his job for him. This is your chance to shine.”
“But Daniel’s older than me and I know he wants to have kids soon. There doesn’t seem to be any point in taking a career job if I’m just going to have to give it up soon. Right?”
Elysia frowned. “Why would you have to give it up? Mothers can still work too, you know?”
“That’s not how Daniel sees it.”
“He wants you to quit work?”
“But just until the baby’s older, right?”
Elysia’s eyes nearly bugged out of her head. Vix could tell that she had so much she wanted to say but she was biting down on her lip hard as if she was trying not to. “So…” Elysia said finally, “what are you going to do?”
Alyx sighed and her head fell back against the wall. “It’s a lovely dream, living in Prague, working on my own collection, but…I guess it just has to be that.”
Vix’s fingers were clawing the window sill so tightly that she thought she might break through the old brittle wood. This is not right. The Alyx I knew would never just shrink back and live a life that someone else laid out for her.
If anything had convinced Vix that they needed to break Alyx and Daniel up, this had solidified her convictions. This wasn’t just about separating two people who were wrong for each other or getting Alyx and Israel back together, this was more than that. This was about the rest of Alyx’s life. This was about letting Alyx live out her potential as a mortal. And it appeared that being with the wrong guy would be enough to stifle her very soul.
“So you turned the job down?” Elysia’s voice floating out the window sounded as heavy and disappointed as Vix felt.
“I haven’t yet,” Alyx said. “I didn’t have the heart to turn it down when they called. I guess I just wanted a few days of knowing that my dream job was mine. I’ll call first thing Monday morning.”
“No,” hissed Vix.
“Be quiet,” Balthazar whispered, nudging in front of her again, ratcheting up the anger that was already swirling around inside her.
I’ll teach him. Vix shoved him aside so she could lean in closest then waited. Sure enough, it only took a few seconds before Balthazar tensed so he could ram his shoulder forward in front of hers.
But she wasn’t there. Vix leaned aside just as he moved, letting him throw his own momentum into mid-air. She held back a smile as he teetered. Then fell straight off the branch to the sidewalk below with a thud. Vix felt their mirage shatter around them with a pop to her ears. A groan drifted up to them.
“Balthazar,” Jordan cried. Vix could see him preparing to swoop down. Vix grabbed his arm, holding him back and whispered, “Mortals are watching.”
In other words, Act human. Humans don’t fly.
“Right,” muttered Jordan. He proceeded to climbed down the tree like an agile cat.
Vix sighed. Act human, not like Spiderman. Unlike Vix, Jordan had never lived among mortals. He couldn’t act human if his life depended on it.
She followed him to the ground pretending to struggle climbing down the tree like a real mortal would, then pretending that gravity was affecting her when she jumped down the last short distance.
She felt a twinge of guilt when she came to stand beside Balthazar lying on his back blinking at the sky. It hadn’t been that long of a fall, right? And besides, Balthazar was immortal.
Balthazar let out another groan. “Why the hell didn’t He make these mortal bodies with wings?”
“You alright?” Jordan held out a hand. Balthazar took it and Jordan helped pull him to his feet.
Balthazar brushed himself down and inspected each part of himself carefully. “I don’t appear to have damaged my host human.” He waved off a concerned passersby with assurances that he was fine.
Now that she knew he was okay, Vix couldn’t help herself. “Try not to be so clumsy, B.”
Balthazar whipped his head around and narrowed his eyes at her. “You did that on purpose.”
“I didn’t do anything. You’re the one who shoved forward so hard you threw yourself off the branch.”
Balthazar snorted. “If I didn’t know any better I’d think you didn’t want me here, my dear.”
“Feel free to go back to Hell.”
Balthazar gave her a pearly grin that seemed almost too big for his face. “And miss out on your fabulous company? Never.”
Vix sighed internally. Seems like she would have to put up with him for a while longer. “I don’t have time to argue with you. Alyx is turning down that job on Monday,” she said, looking between Balthazar and Jordan expectantly.
Jordan raised an eyebrow. “Which means?”
“Which means we have about thirty-six hours to break Alyx and Daniel up.”
* * *
An arm was flung like a lead pole across Israel’s chest. He frowned and squinted open one eye to look down at the offending limb, tanned and skinny and attached to an unmoving body with wild blonde hair that seemed to grab at him like vines.
Oh, right. Tarryn… Tallie. No, Tatiana… I think? Whatever her name was, she had convinced him to stay the night last night. Admittedly, he hadn’t protested too hard.
He slipped out of her grasp without waking her, something he was embarrassed to realize he was a little too good at. He slipped on his clothes and shoes gathered from all about her tiny studio, splashed water on his face, found the least girlie deodorant to spray under his arms, and slid out of her walk-up apartment into the late morning Saint Joseph light, a soft palette of dusty white and gray thanks to the clouds overhead. His mouth was dry and his head pulsed but it wasn’t anything that a little breakfast wouldn’t fix.
The el Souq square, the city’s main marketplace, was between here and his own apartment and on Sundays especially the place was bustling. He loved coming here. The hustle and bustle of sellers and hagglers, the well-to-do rubbing silk-encased elbows with the grimy poor, the piles of dried beans in sacks like mountains of pebbles, the flower stalls bursting with vibrant blooms and the heady scent of nature’s perfume, the trays of honey cakes being sold out of hand-pushed carts, a paparazzi of bees buzzing about them. And more importantly…
He followed his nose, the smoky, mouth-watering scent of grilling meat guiding him.
Vix, Jordan and Balthazar trailed behind Israel as he slipped through the el Souq markets. He was tall enough that it wasn’t hard to do, his wide muscular build standing out among the crowd. The boy hasn’t lost his grace, that’s for sure, thought Vix.
She had felt a pang when she had seen him again. He looked just like he had twenty-five years ago when he was part of their supernatural community, same golden skin and dark hair, heritage from his Egyptian roots, and wide deep-set eyes that seemed darker than their true hazel color because of the intensity in which he stared back at the world.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” said Jordan out of the corner of his mouth, his thick light brown brows down over his eyes like mint tea. “Criminal in a past life. Police officer in this one.”
“I don’t know,” said Balthazar, speaking from Jordan’s other side. “The two professions aren’t so dissimilar.”
“Israel wasn’t a criminal,” argued Vix. In Israel’s past life she had come to see Israel as a kind of…brother and that fierce protectiveness rose up in her even after all these decades that they hadn’t seen each other.
“In his past life he used to run with Mason’s street pirates and used his gifts to climb up buildings so he could steal things,” said Jordan, distaste clear in his tone. “I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of a criminal.”
“It’s called survival.”
“It’s still stealing.”
Vix opened her mouth to argue further but Balthazar interrupted. “Regardless, he’s not an officer anymore.”
“What? Why?” She had wondered after a day of trailing Israel when he was going to get to his job. All Israel seemed to do these days was drink and kiss strange girls, girls who were definitely not Alyx. “And what is he now?”
“He was involved in…an incident six months ago,” said Balthazar, his voice seemingly tinged with sadness. “After that, he quit.”
“An incident?” Vix watched as Israel stood at the side of one of the wooden stalls stuffed with fistfuls of ornate iron and colored glass lamps hanging like fat grapes, the once desert-orange vibrancy of the stall’s cloth roof now faded to a dusty brown. He had his hands in his pockets, appearing to wait for someone as he eyed the crowd. “What incident?”
Balthazar smiled brightly at her. “Are you going to admit that you need me and my information?”
“I don’t need you.”
“Oh really? Then perhaps you care to tell me why our old friend here decided to jump from one side of the law to the other?”
“If you don’t−”
“Shh, both of you,” said Jordan. “Look.”
Vix watched, peering around the stalls, as Israel slid into the crowd and bumped into a rotund man. There was a flash of his hands at the man’s hip pocket. After making his apologies Israel skirted down the side of a stall.
Vix’s eyes widened. “He didn’t.”
“Oh yes, he did,” said Jordan.
They followed Israel and found him standing at a stall that sold grilled meat kebabs, the barbequing smoke wafting towards them, making Vix’s stomach rumble. But the smoke wasn’t thick enough to hide the small leather purse Israel held in his hand.
Vix inhaled a sharp breath. “He did. He just pickpocketed that man,” she hissed. She couldn’t believe what she had just seen. She shoved down the urge to run over there, slap the back of Israel’s head and give him the lecture of his life. Or at least, this life.
“What did I say?” Jordan sounded a little smug. “Once a criminal−”
“Oh, shut up, Jordan.”
They watched as Israel bought three beef kebabs on skewers with his pilfered coins. The stall keeper wrapped them in thin greasy paper and handed it to him along with several cheap napkins.
They continued to follow Israel through the crowd and out of the el Souq markets, eating his kebabs as he walked with the air of a man without guilt.
“So…” Balthazar said, “aren’t you going to ask me what happened to our dear boy?”
Vix gritted her teeth as pride warred with curiosity. “I don’t need your help. I don’t even know that whatever information you’ve supposedly got isn’t an outright lie.”
Balthazar shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
Israel finished his two kebabs and left the last wrapped in the paper. When he rounded the corner to his apartment block, Petr was already leaning against the bricks waiting for him. Petr was a slip of a boy, no more than eleven years old, but with sharp eyes that missed almost nothing. The young boy straightened up and brushed down his rags as he caught sight of Israel.
Israel had caught Petr trying to steal from him when he was an officer. Instead of clipping him around the ears or carting him off to the nearest police station, Israel had bought him a hot meal and convinced him to helping Israel carry some of his groceries home. Israel then handed the boy the exact amount of euros that he had been trying to steal. Since then Petr was always waiting for him most mornings, ready to perform whatever errand Israel had for him, often giving Israel leads and valuable street gossip that he wouldn’t have otherwise gotten. Even after Israel had left the force, he’d still found ways to “employ” the young Petr.
“Hey, Petr.” Israel patted his belly. “I bought too many skewers for breakfast and now I’m so full I’m going to burst. You want my last one? I’d hate to throw it away.”
Petr’s eyes widened and the tip of his small pink tongue poked out of his mouth. A low growl emanated from his stomach. Petr grabbed the package that Israel offered him and tore the paper apart trying to get to the juicy meat inside.
Israel ruffled his hair as Petr pulled the last piece of beef off with his teeth. “If you’ve got time, I need a paper from down the news stand. Just slip it into my mailbox as usual.” He dropped one of the stolen coins into Petr’s palm. “You keep whatever change there is, okay?”
There would be change. More change than the paper was worth, and Israel could have picked up a paper at any number of stands on his way here. But he didn’t.
Petr saluted him and ran off. Israel watched him leave before trudging up the steps to his tiny shitty apartment. Hey, at least it was cheap.
* * *
“Are you sure this will work?” asked Jordan.
“Yes, I’m sure.” Vix watched the door to Israel’s apartment building. Based on a phone conversation she had overheard through Israel’s open window, she knew Israel would be coming out soon into the early afternoon to meet an old school friend who was back in town. “Alyx and Israel are meant to be together. All we have to do is get them to meet and true love will take care of the rest.”
“Well I never,” said Jordan. “Vixen Demetri, you are a closet hopeless romantic.”
“Oh, shut up,” she said, her cheeks heating up.
“And this has to happen in less than twenty-four hours?” Balthazar snorted. “Twenty-four hours. That’s not love, that’s pheromone-induced lust.”
“He’s coming,” Vix said as the lobby door swung open and Israel stepped out. She shoved Jordan and Balthazar back behind the wall. “Get out of sight.”
Balthazar saluted and the two of them disappeared under his Mirage magic.
Vix may not have magic of her own, but that wouldn’t stop her. She had more than enough bloodink, distilled blood from a Seraphim with inherent magic, tattooed onto her arm to do what she needed to do. She walked out onto the sidewalk moving towards Israel and loosened the scarf around her neck. As she approached she drew upon the AirWhisperer bloodink tattoo, the shape of a circle with wavy lines cutting across the center, hidden under her jacket. It rushed through her veins like a sharp icy wind, causing her heart to beat faster and her fingertips to tingle like she was about to grab a live wire. God, she loved using magic. It could be addictive. To some of their community of angels…it was.
Vix sent out a controlled gust of Air that picked up her scarf and blew it straight into Israel’s face, wrapping it around his head. He skidded to a halt on the sidewalk, letting out a short cry and his hands flew up.
“I’m so sorry,” she exclaimed as she reached up to help him pull the scarf off. She brushed her fingertips against his forehead and, using magic drawn from her MemorySong bloodink tattoo, she implanted a tiny memory. Earlier she had implanted a corresponding memory in Alyx’s mind by using the same trick.
She fought the urge to pull him into a bear hug and slap his back affectionately or to punch him for forgetting her.
“The wind today. It’s just crazy,” Vix said to Israel, trying to look as apologetic as possible as she wound her scarf back around her neck.
He no longer had a scar cutting across his top lip. He probably wouldn’t even have those three silver knife scars across his torso anymore either. Of course he wouldn’t. As a mortal he didn’t have half the supernatural population trying to use him and the other half trying to kill him.
Israel was frowning, his eyes slightly glazed. “Oh, it’s fine,” he said almost absently.
Vix smiled as she watched Israel walk away. Her plan was going to work. She knew it would. Alyx and Israel were meant to be together.
An unwanted worm of unease wriggled its way through her excitement. She knew she wasn’t supposed to mess with fate. But if fate wasn’t doing its job properly, then she had no choice, right?
Besides, what was the worst thing that could happen?
* * *
“Vix…if you get caught,” warned Jordan. Vix, Jordan and Balthazar were standing on the roof of one of the office buildings in the Saint Joseph finance district. Up here the city looked like an uneven patchwork of steep slate roofs and orange brick, the city’s thirteen cathedrals piercing the gray sky with their spires like sets of black or copper fangs. The locals had even taken to jokingly calling them “demon’s teeth”.
“Stop being such a worry wart,” Vix said. “We won’t get caught. It’s a Sunday. Hardly anyone except for Mr. Uptight Accountant is in the office today.” She slipped over the edge of the roof and hung upside down mid-air, her fingers curling under the grimy top sill as she peered into the window of the top floor of Peterka, Jezek & Ferret and into Daniel’s office. This was an old brick building built pre-war which meant solid, imposing walls and columns, tall, slim windows shaded by overhanging sills where gray vines twisted around crouched stone monsters that sometimes spat rainwater from their mouths. Jordan and Balthazar leaned over a low decorative wall that hid the rainwater drains at the edge of the roof, behind which was a steep slope of slate tiles.
“What do you see?” Balthazar hissed down to her.
She waved at him to shut up.
Inside the office Daniel was in a suit − crisply-ironed dark pants, white dress shirt, no jacket − and sitting at his desk tapping away at his keyboard. It was ridiculously tidy, all the book spines neatly lined up in the bookcase, the piles of paper on his desk in neat piles, his jacket on a hanger on a coat rack by the door. Even his coffee mug had a coaster underneath it. Alyx is marrying this guy?
She watched him work, methodical tapping of keys and studying of sheets of paper. She thought she might fall asleep hanging there when Daniel pushed back his chair and exited his office. A rush of adrenaline surged through her body. Now was her chance. “I’m going in,” she called up to her two waiting friends.
The window was locked from the inside. But luckily they still had the old-fashioned metal latches. Vix pressed her fingers to the window frame closest to the lock and reached out with Alchemist magic from the corresponding bloodink tattoo on her arm to feel the lock. Her blood warmed from the magic and there was the tang of metal in her mouth.
The lock was made of iron. Here goes nothing. Using the Alchemist magic, she shifted the molecules in the metal and felt it changing.
A long time ago, before Vix was kicked out of Urielos, one of their hidden Seraphim cities, she had a special and forbidden friendship with a Castus, a higher-ranking Seraphim with inherent magic. In secret they would meet and Danielle would often try to teach Vix about her Alchemist magic, letting Vix practice with her undistilled blood-magic, a highly intimate and very taboo practice, especially between a warrior and a Castus. Should Vix be thankful that Danielle had taught her how to manipulate Alchemist so well?
The ghost of pain flashed in an old wound. Being thankful for anything Danielle had given her felt like a betrayal all over again.
“Come on, Vix. What’s taking so long?” Jordan asked.
She was out of practice and she was performing a reversal of what she used to secretly practice with Danielle’s blood-magic. Plus she was thinking about Danielle again. And that was something that made her blood simmer even now, after all these years. Even now after she’d fallen in love with someone else.
“Stop distracting me,” she muttered, unsure of whether she was talking to Jordan or the memory of an old love.
Vix focused on the molecules in the lock, shutting out all other thoughts, coaxing them with a calm yet firm magical push.
Almost got it. Almost…there.
Finally the iron lock completely dissolved, defrosting like ice into a liquid that dribbled down the inside of the sill. Vix made a tiny noise of victory as the window opened on its hinge for her.
She heard Balthazar sniffing loudly. “Did you turn that into…wine?”
“It’s the reversal of part of the Alchemist Challenge,” Vix said as she pushed the window open wider.
“The Alchemist’s Challenge is a contest we hold at fairs and festivals,” she heard Jordan explaining to Balthazar. “Each contestant starts with a bowl of water. They have to turn it into wine, then wine to iron, then…” she stopped hearing him when she slipped inside.
Her eyes darted to the partially open door that showed part of the interior office space, a jumble of open desks and other offices. There was still no sign of Daniel. She flew to his desk and grabbed his cell phone. She opened up a new message and began to type one out to Alyx.
“I have something different planned for tonight…”
* * *
As dusk was staining the Saint Joseph sky like spilled wine and casting the city’s “demon’s teeth” into silhouettes, Israel and his friend Anton sat on one of the benches in Remembrance Park, a park originally built to commemorate those fallen in World War II. It hadn’t changed in all the years Israel had lived here, although most of the sections of the tattered iron fence had been repaired. The air still held the slight acridness of smoke, and underneath all these solemn, ancient trees it never seemed to get warm no matter how hot the summer got. The lights stationed at regular intervals along the paths had already come on, creating sickly pools of watery light. In the distance Israel could see a thick rolling army of gray clouds racing across the sky towards them.
“I don’t know why you’re still here,” Anton said, cigarette smoke spitting out from his lips.
Israel leaned back into the cool metal bench to avoid the waft of smoke. “We’ve had this conversation.”
“And you still don’t have a good answer for me. There’s so much more outside of this forgotten city for you.”
Israel knew he didn’t have a good reason for wanting to stay in Saint Joseph. How could he explain it? Even he didn’t really understand it. He knew he would leave one day but for now it felt like…like he was waiting for something.
The small familiar figure hurrying up one of the paths towards them made Israel sit up. It was Petr, his ill-fitting rags flapping against his skinny limbs.
“Hey, Petr,” Israel called out. “Where’s the fire?”
Anton gave Petr a look, then raised an eyebrow at Israel, but he didn’t say anything. Anton was probably used to his bleeding heart ways.
When the boy reached his bench he grabbed Israel by the hand and tugged. “Israel, hurry.”
“Whoa, Petr.” He grabbed Petr’s arm to stop him from rushing off. “What’s going on?”
Petr turned his dirt-streaked face towards him. “You have to come with me. Now!”
Petr stopped tugging and pursed his lips. “You just have to come with me,” he repeated.
“I’m not coming with you until you tell me why.”
Petr paused. He spoke slowly and carefully. “A lady told me to bring you to her. She said she had a surprise for you, one that you’d really really like.”
“A lady?” Anton snorted beside him, which Israel ignored.
Israel raised an eyebrow. “Does this lady have a name?”
“She said her name was Alyx.”
Alyx. Israel frowned. The name seemed so familiar. Like he should know this Alyx. “What’s Alyx like?”
“She’s real pretty and real nice,” said Petr with a smile and slightly dazed look in his eyes. Israel hid a grin. Little Petr might just be discovering girls. “She gave me one hundred Euros to come get you.”
Pretty, nice…and had money to burn.
Anton laughed and nudged him. “You lucky dog. How come you always get all the good ones? One of your lady friends must have figured out some kind of…” he cleared his throat, “naughty surprise for you.”
Petr’s face suddenly went all serious again. “Will you come?”
Naughty surprise. Well that sounded…more than nice. “Sure.” Petr’s face dissolved into relief. Israel turned to Anton and said his goodbyes.
The instant that Israel stood Petr was tugging on his hand again. Petr led him back along the path and out of Remembrance Park. “Where’re we going?”
Israel grinned. The boy’s enthusiasm was rubbing off on him. This must be some surprise.
Petr dragged him along in silence, through the streets of Saint Joseph until they came to the gates of a familiar cathedral. Israel raised an eyebrow. What kind of lady friend wanted to meet at a church?
Mass was only led on Sunday mornings so St. Paul’s Cathedral was still and silent by Sunday evening. The clouds that had been so far away before were now above, casting a dull light like a misty blanket over his vision.
The clock struck, startling him, and the bells rang out to signal six o’clock. He had always loved the sound of the bells. They’d always vibrated through him with a clear, loud tone. Petr led him right to the top steps of the cathedral. “You have to wait here.”
Israel chuckled. “Okay…what for?”
Petr’s look turned serious. “Your destiny.”
* * *
Alyx frowned as she read Daniel’s text again. Meet me at six o’clock…
The text seemed so mysterious and spontaneous. Daniel was never mysterious or spontaneous. When they met for dinner they only ever went to the Mercantile Club for drinks − two brandies neat for him − before going across the road to the Green Olive where he always ordered a green salad and rump steak, no sauce.
Now he wanted her to meet him…here?
With the thick clouds closing in overhead, she knew a storm was coming. She’d tried to call Daniel to ask him to meet somewhere else, somewhere inside and dry, but his phone just went straight to voice mail. That was strange too. Daniel never had his phone off.
There was nothing to do except to hurry up and meet him and hope that the rain didn’t start before they got inside.
She felt a little flutter in her stomach as she approached Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Old and grand, it was a latticework of spikes and carvings and carved spires and towers. Of soaring stained glass windows, of thick, giant iron-studded doors. Of a single looming bell tower that pointed to the heavens and the wrinkled, golden-faced clock, keeping the time and the movements of the planets and watching over the whole city. She loved this ancient cathedral. She crossed under the stone arch, past the lacework iron gate, and into the grounds through the back. She knew it was silly. But as she stepped through the threshold she felt transported into another world. Where magic could happen.
The sitting dragon gargoyles watched her from above as she walked across the soft carpet of grass around the building towards the front door. When was the last time she even came here? She used to come here often…on Sunday mornings with her mother before−
She shoved that thought away. She turned the corner and spotted Daniel on the steps waiting for her in front of the familiar opposing angels holding swords hammered lovingly into the giant gray doors. At least, she thought it was him. His partial silhouette in this dusky light seemed wider than usual. Had he been working out more? As she ran her eyes over the outline of his rounded shoulders and wide torso, an unfamiliar heat rippled through her. That was odd. Good, but odd. Maybe this would turn out to be a lovely surprise. She wondered if Daniel would appreciate her ogling him and hid a smile. Ogling him at a church, no less. He would not be amused.
Why here? Why at a church?
Oh my God. Did he actually take what she had said on board and decided to just elope without the fuss of a large wedding? She felt sick, like someone had punched her in the lower gut. He hasn’t seen you. Go. Turn around. Run. Now!
What do you think that means, Alyx?
Daniel lifted a hand to her and waved.
He’d seen her. It was too late now. She’d just have to figure out some excuse not to get married right here and right now. She leaned into the wind, which had picked up, and kept walking towards him. Her turbulent thoughts swirled to a stop as she neared the small platform around the entrance.
This wasn’t Daniel.
Who was he? Why did he wave at her? Why was he looking at her as if he was expecting her?
He must be a friend of Daniel’s? But where was Daniel?
As she reached him, his face came into view and her stomach began to jumble. At least a head taller than her, taut golden skin over defined muscles, his stance was wide and confident, and his chin was tilted up as he looked back her. He was gorgeous. But there was an edge to his beauty, his dark clothes, the stubble shadowing his cut jaw, and a mischievousness to his eyes which, in this light, looked as gray as the metal of the doors. His dark hair was messy and fell over his forehead. Strangely, her fingers itched to push it back, an urge that seemed so familiar, and she just knew his locks would be as soft as they looked.
I know him.
But how do I know him?
A disjointed image floated up in her head. It was an image of this very same man, smiling at her…smiling at her as if…as if she was his whole world. In her mind’s image he seemed younger, and his hair was longer, curling at his collar. But there was no mistaking him. Was this a memory? If it was she couldn’t place it. Where had it come from? And this was strange…in her memory he had a pale scar that cut across his top lip that the man in real life didn’t have. They couldn’t be the same man.
“Hello?” she said tentatively. “Have you been waiting for me?”
There it was. That smile that shone brilliantly across his face. The same smile from that strange shard of memory, except in her memory his smile made his scar pale to silver.
He laughed softly, almost like a playful growl. Then he spoke, “Apparently so.” His voice was deep and smooth like a running bass guitar riff and it trickled into her pores and plucked at her skin. Her heart went aflutter.
* * *
You’re here to meet your destiny.
Israel didn’t believe in destiny. Destiny is not what he thought when he saw her approaching around the side of the cathedral. What he did feel was one hell of a mule kick in his chest.
This must be Alyx.
His senses all snapped to attention, his peripheral dimmed so that she was the only clear thing in his eyes. Something about her caught his deepest instinctive attention. Perhaps it was the hints of her slim body under those black tailored pants and a white blouse under a matching black jacket. Or in the way she moved, sleek like a gazelle. Maybe it was the wind tousling her long dark hair around her pale face, letting him catch only glimpses of her pouty red mouth.
As she got closer he began to make out more features on her heart-shaped face. She was stunning, sharp cheekbones like smooth china, and a pair of cat-shaped eyes trimmed with dark lashes and set with brilliant jade. She met his gaze without blinking.
An image of her flashed across his mind but with different hair, shorter at the back but with two long blades framing her face, and her body donned in a tight black leather jacket with a stiff raised collar. It was a far cry from this outwardly conservative woman before him. Or was that just a veil? Something in the way she held herself told Israel that she wasn’t as conservative as she appeared.
He caught her scent…something sweet yet spicy. Something warm but sharp, like he knew she would be. It was intoxicating. And familiar.
I know her from somewhere.
Something inside him woke, rising, fluttering to life, opening its long-closed eyes.
At the same time her chest and shoulders hitched, as if she just took in a sharp breath. He, on the other hand, had stopped breathing. Everything slowed to the silence between heartbeats.
“Hello.” She beat him to it. Her voice was clear and soft. She had a slight accent that told him she was local but she had been educated in a way that had refined it. “Have you been waiting for me?”
All my life.
Nerves tickled his belly, making him laugh, and he smiled so broadly that it almost hurt. “Apparently so.”
Her shoulders relaxed in apparent relief. She smiled back at him and it reached up to her sparkling eyes. His heart began to beat against his rib bones as if it wanted out so it could get as close to this perfect creature as possible.
For a few moments he just looked at her. And she looked at him.
He felt this strange familiarity with her and yet he couldn’t place her. How embarrassing. Where had he meet her before? He better figure out where he knew her from and quickly.
Say something, dammit.
“Hi,” he found himself saying. His mind wasn’t working so well.
A slight flush colored her cheeks. “Hi,” she said back.
She looked surprised that he knew her name. That was odd. “Yes? And you are?”
“I’m Israel.” Before he realized what he was doing, he was holding out his right hand, reaching for her.
She didn’t hesitate in sliding her small soft hand into his. The touch of her sent his blood thundering around his body and roaring in his ears. He never wanted to let go.
* * *
“Well, will you look at that?” Balthazar said.
Through the dusty window of the nearby garden shed, Vix watched Israel and Alyx standing before each other on the top steps of the cathedral, still holding hands. They were just standing there, staring mutely at each other, despite the fierce wind that whipped up leaves around them.
Vix’s chest swelled with pride and she could not contain the happiness from bursting from her face in a grin. “Told you it would work.”
Balthazar nudged Vix. “Do you think we’ll get invited to their wedding?”
Jordan, standing on Vix’s other side, was the only one who was watching the mortal pair solemnly, his arms folded across his chest. “It takes more than an initial connection and two minutes of making googly eyes at each other to forge a lifelong commitment.”
“True,” said Vix, “but we already know that these two can make it. I mean, look at all they did for each other in their past lives. Look at all they went through.”
Jordan turned towards her. There was barely any light in the shed but Seraphim eyes worked like cats’. She didn’t need light to see that his eyebrows were furrowed and his normally thick lips was pressed thin. “If they were meant to reunite in this life, why hasn’t fate brought them together herself?”
She tried to laugh this off. “You’re just bitter that you didn’t come up with this genius plan.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know, Vix. It’s not right to mess with fate.”
“We weren’t messing. We were just…helping fate along.”
Jordan turned back towards the window. Israel and Alyx were still standing there. “Look at the sky.” The sky had become a dark gelatinous carpet, blocking out the remains of daylight. “It just doesn’t feel right. This incoming storm…”
“You’re being silly and superstitious.”
He shook his head. “I just feel like something’s going to go horribly, horribly wrong.”
* * *
Israel could stand here all night just holding her hand, storm or not. But she pulled her hand from his and he regrettably let her go.
She cleared her throat. “So, Israel… Are you one of Daniel’s friends?”
“Daniel?” Who the hell was Daniel? Was he a boyfriend? He better not be a boyfriend. “I’m not friends with Daniel.”
“A work colleague, then. Where is he? He said six o’clock.”
What was she talking about? He frowned. “Didn’t you ask me to meet you here?”
Her eyes widened. “No. I don’t even know you.”
What the hell was going on?
Overhead the heavy clouds that had been holding back the rain finally broke, rain showering down upon them, the cold drops making him flinch. “We should get inside. Wait out the storm.” Israel grabbed for the front doors of the cathedral but they didn’t budge. That was odd. They were never usually locked.
Lightning flashed above them and a horrible cracking sound split the air before thunder boomed, reverberating like a gong.
What was that crack?
He spotted a shadow dropping along the door, highlighted by the tall floodlights that had suddenly come on above them. Something was falling.
The crack. Something had broken off this building.
He spun, raising his eyes, spotting the tumbling piece of stone and fear lashed through him. “Look out!” he screamed at Alyx and threw himself at her.
Everything went into slow motion. He could see his own face reflected in her eyes, wide with fear. He seemed to be launching towards her as if through a sticky glue.
He wasn’t fast enough. The tumbling piece of stone, no larger than his head, clipped against her skull and her eyes rolled back into her head.
Israel grabbed her as she fell. His knees jarred on the flat stone but he didn’t care; he barely registered the pain. He was too focused on her. He lowered her head onto the ground. Her hair was matted and sticky with her own blood, and her eyes were shut. Dear God, please don’t let her be dead.
He pressed his fingers into her neck and was relieved to find a pulse, a weak pulse, but it was there. He called to her to wake up as he wrapped his arms around her limp body, pulling her into his lap. It was no use. She was out cold.
He slid out his phone from his pocket and dialed.
A sharp female voice coupled with static called into his ear. “Emergency, how can we help.”
“This is officer Israel Kader. Badge number 362922.” He stuttered as he spoke his badge number. He shouldn’t even be using it, seeing as his badge was currently sitting in one of the drawers in his captain’s desk along with his CZ 75 piece, or perhaps the captain had given up on his ever returning? He just knew that emergency would respond faster if there was an officer calling it in. He was desperate to do anything, anything, to keep Alyx from dying. Even if it meant he might get in trouble. “There’s been a woman knocked unconscious. She was hit by a falling…” he eyed the villainous stone, “gargoyle from one of the buildings. She’s losing a lot of blood. Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The front entrance. Please hurry.”
Israel slid his phone back in his pocket and repositioned himself on the ground, cradling her head into his lap so he could hold his jacket to her open wound. He bit his lip. Blood was pouring out of her.
“Don’t die,” he commanded her. “Don’t you dare die on me.”
He brushed the ebony strands of hair from her cheek; he couldn’t help himself. She didn’t move. “Hang on, Alyx,” he said to her. Her name felt so familiar on his tongue. “Help is on the way.”
* * *
Darkness filtered into Alyx’s eyes and every crease of her skin. She slipped further back towards the edge of the precipice. She was so tired of trying to hang on. She could just let go. She could just…let go.
“Don’t die,” a deep familiar voice crashed into her consciousness. Deep and comforting. “Don’t you dare die on me.”
I won’t, I promise. Just don’t leave me.
“Hang on, Alyx,” the voice vibrated into her.
Everything solid crumbled from underneath her. Her arms windmilled backwards, desperate to grasp at something but only finding air. She was swallowed up by the darkness; the only thing she could hear was his voice. “Help is on the way, Alyx. Hang on…”
And she fell
And she fell
She landed on her front on something hard. She let out a groan and let herself lie on the ground, too full of pain to move just yet.
She mentally catalogued the parts of her body, moving them slowly and testing them. Her toes wriggled. Her fingers scratched some kind of material. She was lying on a carpet. No, it must be a rug because she could feel the rough fringed edge of it cutting along under her thighs and the coldness of stone seeping up through her knees.
She tested her eyes, squinting before she opened them fully. Wherever she was, it was a room cast in flickering fire-light and shadows. How long she could lie here before someone made her get up?
How did she even get here? Her mind was fuzzy. And her head throbbed like a heartbeat. She remembered going to meet someone…at the cathedral…then…
How could there be nothing?
She had to get up and figure out where she was. She pushed herself gingerly to sitting. Her muscles were stiff as if she hadn’t used them for days.
She was in a large room, soaring vaulted ceiling with stars carved into it, several pillars holding up the structure. Directly above her was a large piece of carved stone that dripped down from the ceiling with a diamond-shaped end. The keystone. But the keystone of what?
How did she get here?
And where was here?
She pushed herself up to her feet. She touched the back of her head, the source of the fading pain, and was relieved to see there was no blood on her fingers when she pulled them away. Her black pants and jacket were scuffed but otherwise she seemed fine.
She gazed around the walls, undulating from the stone carvings set in every inch of them, and frowned. There was something odd about this room. Something…missing.
There were no windows here. None at all. She spun, scanning the walls, peering into the shadows that fell about the room from the flames set in ornate iron torches bolted into the pillars, the only source of light. There were no doors.
Her heart began to pound just a little faster. She walked around the perimeter, trying to find a door, a way out, her bootsteps echoing in the space.
She traced her fingers across the relief carvings across the walls. There was a huge tree with gnarled roots and fruit on the ends of its branches like bruised eggs. There were three men facing each other, flowing cloaks about their shoulders and all wearing a matching amulet at the end of a chain around their necks.
There was a horrible scene where limp bodies hung upside down from trees, the ends of their hair soaking in the pool of blood that trickled down from their fingers. Alyx shuddered, pulled her fingers from it and kept moving.
She stopped before a battle scene in a desert valley between figures seemingly clashing in mid-air, mountains and a huge mosque in the background. It flowed into a scene of a couple within the remains of the mosque. Alyx leaned in closer and frowned. He was lying on the ground, his head in her lap, the broken bones of the structure littering the sand around them, stars seeming to hang in the air around them.
It ended here.
What ended here? Where did that thought even come from?
She traced the boy’s face etched in stone and her heart squeezed in her chest. Something about this scene…something about this boy. He was familiar. And…the girl… Or perhaps she was projecting herself onto these walls.
A darkness blurred in the corner of her eye.
She spun around, the only sound the twist of her heel on the stone and her heart beating in her throat.
“Hello?” Her voice echoed off the cavern walls, her eyes trying to pierce into the shadows the pillars made. She wasn’t sure she was alone in here anymore.
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