My fingers play unconsciously with my blood-stiffened collar while I drive, unblinking, thoughtless and in an obscure daze. Horns honk occasionally to remind me to put pressure on the gas and several decades’ worth of practice instinctively keep me in between the lines as I drive.
I feel like gravity increased its weight upon my shoulders, pushing me to the ground.
I want to sleep. The pain in my face is burning and if I don’t pull over soon I’m going to crash.
When I see a sign for gas, I take the next exit even though I don’t really need it. I’ve only been driving for a couple hours. My body is a wreck. Everything I touch, the keys, my money, snacks, it all weighs ten times more than what it should and I slouch over, ruining what I always use to pride myself about; perfect posture.
How did I ever become an Angel? Good people become Angels. Nobel, self-sacrificing people-- not me. Not egotistical bastards that care more about looks and material shit over morals.
Not people that let others die for them.
I realize I’ve been staring at shelves. The clerk is craning his neck in concern. I’m losing my mind. I have to keep moving. I have to find some place safe but I don’t know where safe is or if I’ll ever be safe again.
The only thing I know is that I’m never using my Light again; that is the only guarantee I have that the Vetalas won’t come seeking my Soul.
I buy random food and a medical kit. The clerk gazes at me with an upturned lip, advising me that I should see a doctor. Ironic enough, and if I wasn’t completely out of touch I would have laughed but instead I snatch my particles from his grubby hand and walk out. I check on Kyla, rolling down the window to give her fresh air. I lock the doors as I thank the attendant pumping my gas before rushing off to the bathroom stalls. The stench does nothing to me. I will never be able to forget the rotten, foul stink of the Kyonshi.
I fumble with the bag, my hands shake, as they have done nonstop for the last few hours and the items whirl in the sink.
Glancing up at the mirror, I stall, terrified at the sight of my face.
My golden hair stretching down to my shoulders is a tangled mess, twisted and dull. My eyes sink and from a lack of sleep there are round dark shadows encircling them. I haven’t shaved and blond hairs begin to appear on my cheeks but the left side is doused in congealed blood from the rip in my skin, which curled and swelled, pulling at my lip to a point where I can’t fully close my mouth. No wonder the man gawked at me so horrified. I’m a monster.
My fingers dance along my face. Unusually, untainted and well-manicured nails are now spoiled and tattered filled with dirt and grime. The lines of my palms crease with dust from my crawl through the debris.
I rush to wash it away.
I scrub up to my elbows, using ounces of soap, digging my nails into my skin, washing it off and repeating the process multiple times before I feel satisfied. I only wish I could do so with the rest of my body. I rip the shirt off, throwing it in the trash and use a paper towel to rub my chest and neck. My body trembles from the cold.
I hesitate upon my face. I am no good with pain. I have never been. As an Angel I heal faster, so by chance my skin is already patching itself back together but if I don’t rip it back apart it will stay as it is, disgustingly twisted. I will have to cut it apart.
I have no problem doing this to others. Their screams go deaf on my ears. I know the end result will be perfect and when their tears are finished they will thank me and smile as they walk away. I am a gifted doctor. Ariel helped make me who I am. But how do I do this to myself?
I leave the bathroom, popping the trunk to the car, explaining to the attendant that I will be right out in a minute as I rummage through my luggage. He stays silent, looking at me oddly. I’m sure the whole thing is a strange event to witness.
I’m bathing in the bathroom with a swollen face while a girl is passed out in the back of my car. I wouldn’t be surprised if the person he’s on the phone with the police.
I make sure to hide the knife, holding it flush against my forearm as I hurry back to the restroom.
Facing the painful dilemma in front of me, I pant through my nose, my chest heaving, staring at myself in the mirror, forcing courage where I don’t have any.
My hands still, pointing the edge of the sharp blade to my skin. Leaning over the sink, I slowly make the incision at a ninety-degree angle, keeping my mouth shut, groaning out through my throat. My Adam’s apple bobs and my teeth clench with the agony. Blood drips down my chin and off my fingertips that keep hold of my face. I feel a few drops run along my forearm and trickle down my elbow. The warmth nauseates my belly.
The dagger clutters in the sink and my hands grips the rim. My moans boom the emptiness of the bathroom and I slam a foot upon the cement floor. Red liquid continuously drips. I force myself to carry on the process, concentrating on the job at hand instead of the pain. I must focus. My hands shake again I notice.
I spin the cap off on the saline and pour it over my face. Screams vibrate from closed lips and tears mix with blood and alcohol. My face squeezes in agony but I quickly move on to the sewing kit, my breath huffing through my nose and my chest puffing as I nearly hyperventilate.
The trembling of my hands stop as I take a hold of a needle and a thin clear thread easily setting it up within seconds. I have the needlepoint against my face and stare at my wound. Attempting to calm myself, I make slow even breaths.
What would Ariel say if she saw me right now? My lip barely attempts a smile. I would like to believe she would tell me how impressed she is. That would only be a dream however. She would indeed scold me on my pathetic display of emotion. Any sign of weakness disgusted her.
Sewing my face together isn’t as terrible as I thought it would be. My adrenaline is high and numbs most of my nerves. I can barely feel the string pulling at my skin. Once it is done, I clean it again and then place a large bandage over its puffed form. It’s hideous to be sure but now the scar won’t be so horrible.
If I could use my Light, I could heal my wounds within moments. I have bruises and scrapes. My whole body seems to ache. But I will suffer through it as a typical human. I’m never calling upon my Light again.
I wash myself clean and despite hating it, I pick the knife up and wash the blood from its blade. I leave the hideous mess behind only to find the attendant and the clerk waiting right outside, fearful and awkwardly interested. My moans and cries no doubt echoed. “You might want to clean up in there.” I murmur through my swollen face, passing them quickly.
I drive, wondering where I should go now. I’m heading North which is a bad idea. I can’t go any further up without getting into the territory of the New York Council. I need to turn around. Yet even as I think about it, I don’t care to do anything else but sleep. I pull over instead. I need to rest, just for a little bit. I’m sure I could find a crappy motel to sleep in but I will not risk it. The Shini seemed convinced someone would be after me. But that’s not true is it? Glancing in the rearview mirror where the Rune dangles with its intricate gold designs.
No one is after me.
They are after Kyla.
As much as I don’t want to think about the time spent tied to a chair as a zombie threatened to eat my Soul, I can’t stop concentrating on his words. He called Kyla a hybrid. I rotate in the front seat to look at her fully.
Half-Fallen, Half Angel, would that make sense? Could that be possible? What would that mean? What would that do for the races?
I peek up to the sky. My hands play with the plastic bag full of unhealthy foods and soft drinks. Weakness is building in my chest. My face burns from pain. My heart thumps harshly in remembrance of the human I murdered. “What are You doing?” I whisper. “Do You even know?”
Too tired to eat, I pull the lever on the seat and fall back, resting against Kyla’s knees.
I reach over, shifting a stray hair from her cheek. A bit of dust and dirt mars her clothes. I will have to buy her new ones once I get into a proper town. “That was a close call, huh?” I adjust a blanket around her, attempting to make her more comfortable. I nearly threw her inside and now I fix my bag to properly support her head. I need to get her proper pillows too.
“We got through it though, didn’t we?” Her hand rests lazily and I grasp it resting it upon the covers. I notice the bracelet that wraps her wrist and I play with it mindlessly, laying my head down on the back of my seat, my eyes drooping. “Tymcian give you this? You know you’re supposed to get more charms? What does the bear mean?” The side of my face sharply pains enough to bring sudden tears to my eyes. I take a deep breath to quell the ache, gripping Kyla’s hand. It’s only a moment longer and soon it subsides to a normal throb I can withstand. “I’m going to rest for a while, okay? You take first watch.” I chuckle at my joke, patting her wrist and pull away.
I don’t know what wakes me. Dusk settles through the trees. I flick my gaze to the clock. I managed to sleep for a few hours. I stretch only to realize I hold Kyla’s hand. I snatch my fingers free, annoyed.
“Sir,” A muffled voice flips me around as she taps on the glass with her knuckles. “Can you roll down your window?”
I go to turn on the car but realizing this vehicle is an old crappy thing, I grab the handle and actually roll down the window. She keeps a hand on her gun, moving her gaze back and forth between Kyla and myself.
“Good evening, Officer.”
“How you doin’? You tell me what you doin’ out here?”
My natural courtesies pull at the tape in my cheek, waking pain. I hold my jaw, swallowing groans. How can I sweet talk my way into her good graces if I can’t flirt?
I think of a story quick enough, “I’m sorry, ma’am. We have been driving for a while. We are from Tennessee, going to visit family in Maine before the weekend hits and I found myself unable to continue. I will certainly keep moving. I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble.”
“It’s pretty dangerous. Plan better next time. A hotel isn’t but a few miles from here. You and your wife would be much more comfortable and safer there. Just a verbal warning this time.” She touches her cowboy hat. “Have a good evenin’.”
I breathe a sigh of relief turning back to my steering wheel, just at the moment, my breath makes the Rune spin and a fleeting ray of light through the trees catches it, sending off glittering trails of beautiful wave particles.
I suck in a breath.
They appear from thin air, three Undead. They surround my vehicle with shotguns aimed at my head. Two stand in the front while the other investigates from the bumper. I grip the steering wheel, ready to flee. But the risk to Kyla is too great.
What if I can trust them?
Tymician and the Shini both believed there was no one to trust but if that’s true then I’m as good as I dead. I need help. I am not a soldier or an Erelim. I don’t know how to protect her. A human was killed because I can’t fight. I don’t know how to protect myself let alone anyone else.
The officer returns to the window. She rests a hand on my car, leaning in to take a closer look at the rune dangling from my rearview. I’m sure she’s connected to the Source now. “This is Angel territory, sir, The Hunting Grounds. What’s your purpose here?”
“Apparently I took a wrong turn.” I attempt to charm her with humor.
She glances toward her partners before beaming down at me, “We will have to ask you to turn around and take the 522 back to interstate 70.”
I nod overly dramatic, “I can do that.” I am near tears. They are letting me go. I don’t know if I want to be free or if I want to beg them for their assistance.
The back passenger door opens and my bag falls out. Kyla’s head drops at a terrible angle. I fling out, reaching back, “hey!” I grip a hold of her but an Angel comes through.
His eyes widen at the sight of her. “It’s a Fallen!” He hollers to the others. Her brutal, tainted scar is brightly visible in the ray of the fading sun. “He’s married to a Fallen!”
I’m helpless as he crudely yanks on her arm, dragging her body from the comforts of the car and Kyla drops upon the concrete with a terrible thud.
I jump from my seat, but the police officer snaps my arm behind my back and slams me upon the hood.
“Calm down, Angel.” She murmurs into my ear.
“Leave her alone! Can’t you see, she’s sick!” I buck and struggle but the woman’s hold is harsh and pain keeps me still.
“Look how he cares for her!” The man taunts stepping away from Kyla’s body as if she’s contagious. “They’re probably Soul Mates.” The three Angels surround Kyla staring at her in fasciation as if she is a foreign object. I wonder if they have ever seen a Fallen before.
“She’s an Elder.” They digress from the oddness of her Light. “Why won’t she wake?” One of them finally looks at me with a pinch of education in his brain.
“I said she’s sick! I’m her doctor. I’m not her Soul Mate or her anything but her doctor.”
The officer places a calming hand upon my back before slowly loosening her hold. I snap out of it, running around the car and going to Kyla in a rush. Checking to make sure no wounds have come about by the carelessness of the enemy, I carefully pick her up and manage to get her back in the car, wrapping the blanket around her.
“We will have to take you to our Head.”
Facing her assailants, I nip, “Yea, do that. I want to file a couple complaints. What are their names? Perhaps the Ruling would like to hear about it too.”
The male that pulled Kyla out of the car comes at me, “Why bother, bro? You have something to say, say it now.”
“I ain’t your bro, you sniveling punk.”
The officer steps between us, pushing her palms against her clanmate’s chest, “Enough, Will. Why don’t you go survey the area. Jay, you take the lead. I’ll handle this.”
Even though they leave, I huff and puff with indignation. The way they threw her on the ground replays in my head and it sickens me.
I look in the window to make sure Kyla is well. She lays undisturbed but it does nothing to ease my upset. I can’t even protect her from petty jerks. How did Tymician figure I’d be able to keep her from the Devil’s hounds!
Why am I so useless?
My reflection shines in the window. In a flash of insight, I realize that I haven’t even tried. I first diagnosed her with shock. I never reached into her Soul with my own. I never attempted to fix her.
The remaining police officer sympathetically observes my muted stance, timidly waiting for me to calm down.
I could use the Hunting Grounds. In a controlled environment, I could tap into the Source and find a way to heal Kyla by reaching into her hibernating Soul and pull her out. I’ve never done anything like that but experimenting has always been my thing.
“Pardon my friends.” She unsurely steps toward me. “Fallen tend to get under their skin. There’s a Kio house in Morgantown that gives us great trouble so we don’t have a good standing with Fallen.” She holds out a hand, “I’m Asura Ellen.”
I clasp her hand, “Dave.”
Cautiously, I decide to lie even further, “Elder Fallen Layla.”
She nods pursuing her lips, “Let’s go for a drive, Dave.” She gives a lop-sided smile.
It’s undeniably pleasant having company that isn’t trying to kill me and that isn’t in a coma. No offense to Kyla but Ellen isn’t relying on me to stay alive and that really relieves the stress.
“What brings you out here, for real this time?”
As a scholar in lying, I naturally roll out a fantastic story of love and betrayal.
Layla was hoarding a human Soul Mate somewhere off the coast of Hawaii. When her entire house found out her secret, they were so disgusted by their forbidden communion, they sought their deaths. Layla ran, separating from her lover, hoping to keep their murderous hands away from him. Yet on the run, she became sick. All alone and in terrible shape, she arrived at my doorstep.
I, the honorable man that am, vowed to care for her, restore her health and reunite two long lost lovers.
Ellen drowns into every word, gasping at each twist and breathless by the time I end my epic romance. She presses a hand to her weary heart, “You poor thing. No one’s willing to help you?”
Some Angels are just too easy to mold. “I don’t want to place this burden on anyone. I shouldn’t even be here. But truthfully, I’m exhausted. My last run in with her clan mates nearly killed me.”
“Well, you are safe now. The Hunting Grounds have strong border patrols.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard of the Hunting Grounds.”
“Really?” She peculiarly inquires.
With nighttime settling over the woodlands, I manage to make out her face when another car drives by, splashing their lights through. She wears a weary smile, one full of trampled memories. I’m taken off guard by the melancholy on her dimples.
“I thought everyone has heard of us.”
I shake my head, probing further, “Are you a new clan?”
“We’re cursed.” She murmurs.
A little giggle presses through her fine lips and she leans against the door. “That’s what they say anyway. There’s something in these woods that dilutes us.” She shrugs, smiling wide, shoving it away, “Don’t believe all that fuss. I’ve been all through these trees. Mother Nature doesn’t care about us anymore.”
Ellen turns on a private road barely discernible aside from the ‘keep out’ sign. It’s full of gravel and dirt worsening the visibility but she manages to weave through the rough uneven ground with ease, twisting with each bend knowledgeably. After a mile, a parking lot opens up in front of a log cabin. Police cars, state troopers, SUVs, sedans, fire trucks, limos, and other city official decals decorate the sides of dozens of cars.
It makes me nervous realizing how deeply rooted they are. What would they do with someone like Kyla?
Ellen radios in our arrival, asking for a medical team.
“I’d really like to talk to your leader first.” I get out of the car, watching as she fixes her utility belt.
“Don’t worry, Dave. Will and Jay, they’re stubborn then old mules but they don’t represent this clan. Our doctors are good, I promise. They won’t hurt her.”
Hearing the sound of a gurney rolling along, I hustle to remove Kyla from the car just as the welcoming committee arrives. Ellen pushes me up the hill, noticing my trepidation, “See that building down there by the lake? That’s our hospital. She won’t be but five hundred feet away.”
The entire Hunting Grounds’ compound reminds me of the movie Heavy Weights. There are multiple structures made of logs and brick but what adds to the allure of summer camp is the humongous balloon floating peacefully in the middle of the lake. It sits majestically in the moonlight, undisturbed after a day of tedious work.
I look around the entire complex, taken back the serene atmosphere. Campfires illuminate in random parts and black smokes clogs the sky. People sit around talking or they are fishing on the dock. A pack of joggers steadily drifts on by interrupting a crowd of ducks and they quack and waddle, flapping their wings with upset.
It has the feel of a normal Angel clan, trudging up old memories I don’t want to remember.
With Kyla on her way to the hospital, Ellen takes me into the front cabin. There are offices to the left and right of us as we rush down the hall. At the end of the building, there are stairs, which lead underground and through a huge, spacy tunnel. “This must have taken a long time.”
“This clan is four thousand years old. After our first Head Fell, Rezon took over. Elder Erelim Ariel assisted our foundation in the beginning.”
“I didn’t know that.” I mumble to myself, never realizing the tunnel enhances voice.
“It’s not something they teach in ‘Erelim History Class’. I’m pretty sure she disappeared before you were born but I met her once. She’s was mind-bogglingly handsome but colder than glacier ice.”
“No,” I reply thoughtlessly, “She was all heart; you only needed to be injured to receive it.”
Ellen turns to me but it appears we are at the entrance to her leader’s room. I thank her and with all the arrogance I can muster, I stroll in bravely and unannounced.
Animal skins stretch out along the walls and the floors. A giant moose head sticks out from the corner and dominates the room. Little squirrels and other various rodents stuffed and sculptured line up around the fireplace like a scene out of a forest. It is slightly obscene and it could use a little redecorating, if anyone asked me.
The leader warms himself by the fire among his silent furry-tailed friends. His faded red robes are moth eaten and full of holes and it drapes behind him as a king’s cloak.
I should bow, but that will only get dust on my knees. I stuff my hands in my pockets, greeting him with a half-smile.
A deep scratchy chuckle escapes the rasp of his throat. “Look at you.” He looks over his shoulder, revealing sagging skin and black warts. He cackles deeper, turning to me fully baring his horribly archaic face. Most of his skin wiggles around his neck. He raises a deformed black fingernail, “You come into my clan, so cocky and sure, with a smirk upon your face. I’ve put many Angels like you in your place and I don’t mind doing it now.”
“Now old man I did not come here to steal your seat.” I wave to the sight around me, “These dungeons suit a man of your...tastes. I have no desire to rule.”
“Then what is your purpose here?”
I can see how he would assume I mean to steal his clan. It is perfectly ripe for the plucking. It hadn’t crossed my mind, it hadn’t been a possibility before. I’m a thousand years old, incapable of threatening an Elder. But as funny as it sounds, I have every capacity now to take it from him because of one simple fact:
“I’m being hunted by the Vetalas.”
Bright, educated horror widens his gaze and the white of his eyes prevails his face. “And you come to my clan!” He growls viciously, spit splattering on the carpet at our feet.
I hold up a hand laughing, “Calm down before you give yourself a heart attack.” He finds no amusement in my joke. “As long as I veil my Light, they will not attack.”
“Get out and take your hellish woman with you.”
I tedious walk the outer wall of his room, “I don’t want your clan. But I require your assistance. I need to connect to the Source. In a controlled environment, no one should be hurt.”
Raspy and weak, Rezon scoffs. “Why would I ever allow that? I should call the Ruling and have you put down.”
“I’ll use them right now. And those creatures will rip through this lair in seconds. Who do you think they will go for first?”
His back straightens at my threat. It is a sign that reveals his hidden strength. Even though his shell is falling apart, his Light is a remarkable test of time. “Listen here, you undeveloped fledgling--”
“A kyonshi was eating my face,” I bare my cheek, incapable of holding the horror with the memory it brings, “the last time I used my Light. The Vetalas actually saved me. They don’t want me when there is something much tastier in their sight.” Swallowing, I manage to find my cocky smile, “Isn’t that how it goes?”
Rezon observes me. I don’t know what he sees but for some reason it quiets him and he lowers into a chair. His gaze reverts to the fire, silent and motionless. It is silent for a long while. Every little figurine or dust-covered book, I fondle if only to annoy.
“Why risk your Light? You must be aware that you are fading.”
“It’s my job.”
I move for the door. All of my confidence, my poise, depletes. I blame it on exhaustion but facing the reality that I’m dying for this girl that I’ve never met, makes me wonder if I’m doing the right thing.
“What is your name, devil lover?”
I struggle with lying. “I’d rather not say.”
“You understand the Vetalas work for the Sins. Why are they after you? What demon did you piss off?”
I remain silent, stepping through the doorway.
Then I hear his raspy voice whisper through the dead air: his silent revelation.
“Ah, I see.” He chest heaves and he chokes on the building liquid in his lungs. A barrage of coughing shudders his shoulders and rocks the chair. He holds a cloth to his lips to hide the blood and spit but I watch from the crack in the doorway nonetheless, if only to hear the final whisper waiting for me. As the ache recedes from his throat, he rests back in his chair with a mighty sigh. He swallows hard and murmurs to the fire. “It’s the girl.”