“Can I take your order, sir?” asked the cute girl with the blond ponytail and a smile wide enough to split her face in two.
Aaron Corbet shook himself from his reverie and tried to focus on the menu board behind her. “Uh, yeah, thanks,” he said, attempting to generate interest in yet another fast-food order. His eyes were strained from hours of driving, and the writing on the menu blurred as he tried to read it. “Give me a Whopper-with-cheese value meal, and four large fries to go.”
Aaron hoped the four orders of fries would be enough to satisfy Camael’s strange new craving for the greasy fast food. Just a few days ago the angel had given him a song and dance about how creatures of Heaven didn’t need to eat—but that had been before he sampled some of the golden fried potatoes. Angels addicted to French fries, Aaron thought with a wry shake of his head. Who’da thunk it?
But then again, who could have predicted this crazy turn his life had taken? he thought as he waited for his order to be filled. The angel Camael had become his companion and mentor since Aaron’s realization that he was born a Nephilim. He remembered how insane it had all sounded at first—the hybrid offspring of the mating between a human woman and an angelic being. Aaron thought he was losing his mind. And then people he cared about started dying, and he realized there was much more at stake than just his sanity.
Aaron turned away from the counter and looked out over the dining room. He noticed a couple with a little boy who appeared to be no more than four years old. The child was playing with a blue plastic top that he must have gotten as a prize with his kid’s meal. Aaron immediately thought of Stevie, his foster brother, and a weighty feeling of unease washed over him. He recalled the last time he had seen his little brother. The seven-year-old autistic child was being dragged from their home in the clutches of an angel—a soldier in the service of a murderous host of angels called the Powers. The Powers wanted Aaron dead, for he was not just a Nephilim, he was also supposed to be the chosen one spoken of in an angelic prophecy written over a millennium ago, promising redemption to the fallen angels.
At first it had been an awful lot to swallow, but lately Aaron had begrudgingly come to accept the bizarre twists and turns that life seemed to have in store for him. Camael said that it was all part of his destiny, which had been predetermined long before he was born.
The child had managed to make the top spin and, much to his parents’ amusement, clapped his hands together as the plastic toy careened about the table top.
The prophecy predicted that someone very much like Aaron would be responsible for bringing forgiveness to the angels hiding on Earth since the Great War in Heaven, that he would be the one to reunite the fallen with God. It’s a big job for an eighteen-year-old foster kid from Lynn, Massachusetts, but who was he to argue with destiny?
The spinning top flew from the table and the little boy began to scream in panic. Again Aaron was bombarded with painful memories of the recent past, of his foster brother’s cries as he was stolen away. “I think I’ll keep him,” the Powers leader, Verchiel, had said as he handled the little boy like some kind of house pet. Aaron’s blood seethed with the memory. Perhaps he was some kind of savior, but there was nothing he wanted more than to find his brother. Everything else would have to wait until Stevie was safe again.
The child continued to wail while his panicked parents scrambled to find the lost toy. On hands and knees the boy’s father retrieved the top from beneath a nearby table and brought the child’s sadness to an abrupt end by returning the toy to him. Though his face was still streaked with tears, the boy was smiling broadly now. If only my task could be as simple, Aaron thought wearily.
“Do you want ketchup?” he heard someone say close by, as he turned his thoughts to how much farther he’d be able to drive tonight. He was tired, and for a brief moment he considered teaching Camael how to drive, but that thought was stricken from his mind by the image of the heavenly warrior in the midst of a minor traffic altercation, cutting another driver in two with a flaming sword.
Aaron felt a hand upon his shoulder and spun around to see the girl with the ponytail and the incredibly wide smile holding out his bags of food. “Ketchup?” she asked again.
“Were you talking to me?” he asked, embarrassed, as he took the bags. “I’m sorry, I’m just a bit dazed from driving all day and …”
He froze. His foster mom would have described the strange feeling as somebody walking over his grave, whatever the hell that meant. He never did understand the strange superstitions she often shared, but for some reason, the imagery of that one always stuck with him. Aaron missed his foster parents, who had been mercilessly slain by Verchiel, and it made his desire to find his brother all the more urgent. He turned away from the counter to see a man hurriedly going out a back door, two others in pursuit.
The angelic nature that had been a part of him since his eighteenth birthday screamed to be noticed, and senses far beyond the human norm kicked into action. There was a trace of something in the air that marked the men’s passing as they left the store. It was an aroma that Aaron could discern even over the prominent smells of hot vegetable oil and frying meat. The air was tainted with the rich smell of spice—and of blood.
With a polite thank-you he took his food and left the store, quickly heading to the metallic blue Toyota Corolla parked at the back of the lot. He could see the eager face of his dog in the back window. Gabriel began to bark happily as he reached the car, not so much that his master had returned, but that he had returned with food.
“What took so long?” the dog asked as Aaron placed the bags on the driver’s seat. “I didn’t think you were ever coming out.”
Being able to understand and speak any form of language, including the vocalizations of animals, was yet another strange manifestation of Aaron’s angelic talents, and one that was both a blessing and a curse when it came to his canine friend.
“I’m starved, Aaron,” the dog said eagerly, hoping that there would be something in one of the bags to satisfy what seemed to be a Labrador retriever’s insatiable urge to eat.
Gabriel also loved to talk, and after Aaron had used his unique abilities to save the dog after a car accident, the Lab had suddenly become much smarter, making him quite the dynamic personality. Aaron loved the dog more than just about anything else, but there were days that he wished Gabriel was only a dog.
“I’d really like to eat,” he said from the backseat, licking his chops.
“Not now, Gabe,” Aaron responded, directing his attention to the large man sitting with his eyes closed in the passenger seat. “I have to speak with Camael.” The angel ignored him, but that didn’t stop Aaron from talking. “Inside the restaurant,” he said. “I think three angels just went out the back door and …”
Camael slowly turned his head and opened his steely blue eyes. “Two of them are of the Powers; the other, a fallen angel”—he tilted back his head of silvery white hair and sniffed, the mustache of his goatee twitching—“of the host Cherubim, I believe. I was aware of their presence when we pulled into the lot.”
“And you didn’t think it was important to say anything?” Aaron asked, annoyed. “This could be the break we’ve been waiting for. They might know where Stevie is.”
The angel stared at him without emotion, the plight of Aaron’s little brother obviously the furthest thing from his mind. With Camael, it was all about fulfilling the prophecy—that and finding a mysterious haven for fallen angels called Aerie.
“We have to go after them,” Aaron said forcefully. “This is the first contact we’ve had with anything remotely angelic since we left Maine.”
Gabriel stuck his head between the front seats. “Then we really should eat first. Right, Camael?” he asked, eyeing the bags resting on the seat. “Can’t go after angels on an empty stomach, that’s what I always say.” The dog had begun to drool, spattering the emergency break.
Camael moved his arm so as not to be splashed and glared at the animal. “I do not need to eat,” he snarled, apparently very sensitive to the recent craving he had developed for French fries.
Aaron opened the back door of the car and motioned for Gabriel to get out. “C’mon,” he said to them both. “We have to hurry or we’ll lose them.”
“May I have a few fries before we go?” the dog asked as he leaped from the car to the parking lot. “Just to hold me over until we get back.”
Aaron ignored his dog and slammed the door closed, anxious to be on his way.
“Do you think this wise?” Camael asked as he removed himself from the front seat of the car. “To draw attention to ourselves in such a way?”
Aaron knew there was a risk in confronting the angels, but if they were ever going to find his brother they had to take the chance. “The Powers answer to Verchiel, and he’s the one who took Stevie,” Aaron said, hoping that the angel would understand. “I don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t at least try to find out what they know.”
Camael moved around the car casually buttoning his dark suit jacket, impeccable as always. “You do realize that this will likely end in death.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Aaron said as he turned away from his companions and followed the dwindling trail of angel scents into the dense woods behind the fast-food restaurant.
No matter how he tried to distract himself, Verchiel found himself drawn to the classroom within the St. Athanasius Orphanage where the prisoner was held.
Standing in the shadows of the room, the angel stared at the huddled figure feigning sleep within his prison, and marveled at how a mere cage of iron could contain an evil so vast. Verchiel would destroy the prisoner if he could, but even he was loath to admit that he did not have the power to accomplish such a task. He would have to take a level of satisfaction from the evil one’s containment, at least for now. When matters with the Nephilim and the accursed prophecy were properly settled, then he could concentrate on an appropriate punishment for the captive.
“Am I that fascinating a specimen?” the prisoner asked from his cage. He slowly brought himself to a sitting position, his back against the bars. In his hand he held a gray furred mouse and gently stroked its tiny skull with an index finger. “I don’t believe we saw this much of each other when we still lived in Heaven.”
Verchiel bristled at the mention of his former home; it had been too long since last he looked upon its glorious spires and the memory of its beauty was almost too painful to bear. “Those were different times,” he said coldly. “And we … different beings.” The leader of the Powers suddenly wanted to leave the room, to be away from the criminal responsible for so much misery, but he stayed, both revolted and mesmerized by the fallen angel and all he had come to embody.
“Call me crazy,” the prisoner said conversationally as he gestured with his chin beyond the confines of his prison, “but even locked away in here I can feel that something is happening.”
Verchiel found himself drawn toward the cage. “Go on.”
“You know how it feels before a summer storm?” the prisoner asked. “How the air is charged with an energy that tells you something big is on the way? That’s how it feels to me. That something really big is coming.” The prisoner continued to pet the vermin’s head, waiting for some kind of confirmation. “Well, what do you think, Verchiel?” he asked. “Is there a storm on the way?”
The angel could not help but boast. His plans were reaching fruition and he felt confident. “More deluge than storm,” Verchiel responded as he turned his back upon the captive. “When the Nephilim—this Aaron Corbet—is finally put down, a time of change will be upon us.” He strode to a haphazardly boarded window and peered through the cracks at the New England summer night with eyes that saw through darkness as if it were day.
“With the savior of their blasphemous prophecy dead, all of the unpunished criminals of the Great War, driven to despair by the realization that their Lord of Lords will not forgive them, will at last be hunted down and executed.” Verchiel turned from the window to gaze at his prize. “That is what you are feeling in the air, Son of the Morning. The victory of the Powers—my victory.”
The prisoner brought the mouse up to his mouth and gently laid a kiss upon its tiny pointed head. “If you say so, but it doesn’t feel like that to me. Feels more special than that,” he said. The mouse nuzzled his chin and the prisoner chuckled, amused by the tiny creature’s show of affection.
Verchiel glided toward the cage, a cold smile forming on his colorless lips. “And what could be more special than the Nephilim dying at the hands of his sibling?” he asked the prisoner cruelly. “We have spared nothing in our pursuit to destroy him.”
The prisoner shook his head disapprovingly. “You’re going to use this kid’s brother to kill him? That’s cold, Verchiel—even for someone with my reputation.”
The angel smiled, pleased by the twisted compliment. “The child was a defective, a burden to the world in which he was born—that is, until I transformed him, forged him into a weapon with only one purpose: to kill the Nephilim and every tainted ideal that he represents.” He paused for dramatic effect, studying the expression of unease upon the captive’s gaunt face. “Cold?” Verchiel asked. “Most assuredly, for to bring about the end of this conflict I must be the coldest one there is.”
The mouse had defecated in the prisoner’s hand and he casually wiped it upon his robe of heavy brown cloth. “What makes this Nephilim—this Aaron Corbet—any different from the thousands of others you’ve killed over the millennia?”
Verchiel recalled his battle with this supposed savior, the ancient angelic sigils that covered his flesh, his ebony wings, the savagery of his combat skills. “There is nothing special about this one,” he sneered. “And those of the fallen who cling to the belief that he is the savior of prophecy must be shown this.”
He remembered how they battled within the storm he himself had conjured, weapons of heavenly fire searing the very air. It was to be a killing blow; his sword of fire poised to sever the blasphemer’s head from his body. And then, inexplicably, lightning struck at Verchiel, and he fell from the sky in flames. The burns on his body had yet to heal, the pain a constant reminder of the Nephilim, and how much was at stake. “With his death,” Verchiel continued, “they will be shown that the prophecy is a lie, that there will be no forgiveness from the Creator.”
The prisoner leaned his head of shaggy black hair against the iron bars of his prison as the mouse crawled freely in his lap. “Why does the idea of the prophecy threaten you so?” he asked. “After all this time, is absolution such a terrible thing?”
Verchiel felt his anger blaze. His mighty wings unfurled from his back, stirring the dust and stagnant air of the room. “It is an affront to God! Those who fought against the Lord of Lords should be punished for their crimes, not forgiven.”
The prisoner closed his eyes. “But think of it, Verchiel: to have the past cleared away. Personally I think it would be pretty sweet.” He opened his eyes and smiled a beatific smile that again reminded Verchiel of how it had been in Heaven—and how much had been lost to them all. “Who knows,” the prisoner added, “it might even clear up that complexion of yours.”
It was a notion that had crossed Verchiel’s mind as well—that his lack of healing was a sign that the Creator was not pleased with his actions—but to have it suggested by one so vilified, so foul, was enough to test his sanity. The leader of the Powers surged toward the cage, grabbing the bars of iron.
“If I have incurred the wrath of my heavenly sire, it is for what I failed to do, rather than what I have done.” Verchiel felt the power of his angelic glory course through his body, down his arms, and into his hands. “I did not succeed in killing the Nephilim, but I have every intention of correcting that oversight.”
The metal of the cage began to glow a fiery orange with the heat of heavenly fire, and the prisoner moved to its center. His robes and the soles of his sandals began to smolder. “I deserve this,” he said, a steely resolve in his dark eyes. “But he doesn’t.” He held the mouse out toward Verchiel and moved to the bars that now glowed a yellowish white. He thrust his arm between the barriers, his sleeve immediately bursting into flame, and let the mouse fall to the floor where it scurried off to hide among the shadows.
“How touching,” Verchiel said, continuing to feed his unearthly energies into the metal bars of the prison. “It fills me with hope to see one as wicked as you showing such concern for one of the Father’s lowliest creatures.”
“It’s called compassion, Verchiel,” the prisoner said though gritted teeth, his simple clothing ablaze. “A divine trait, and one that you are severely lacking.”
“How dare you,” Verchiel growled, shaking the bars of the cage that now burned with a white-hot radiance. “I am, if nothing else, a spark of all that is the Creator; an extension of His divinity upon the world.”
The prisoner fell, his body burning, his blackening skin sending wisps of oily smoke into the air as he writhed upon the blistering hot floor of the cage. “But what if it’s true, Verchiel?” he asked in an impossibly calm voice. “What if … it’s all part of His plan?”
“Blasphemy!” the angel bellowed, his anger making the bars burn all the brighter—all the hotter. “Do you seriously think that the Creator can forgive those who tried to usurp His reign?”
“I’ve heard tell,” the prisoner whispered through lips blistered and oozing, “that He does work in mysterious ways.”
Verchiel was enjoying his captive’s suffering. “And what if it is true, Morningstar? What if the prophecy is some grand scheme of amnesty composed by God? Do you actually believe that you would be forgiven?”
The prisoner had curled into a tight ball, the flesh of his body aflame, but still he answered. “If I were to believe in the prophecy … then it would be up to the Nephilim … wouldn’t it?”
“Yes,” Verchiel answered. “Yes, it would. And it will never be allowed to happen.”
The prisoner lifted his head, any semblance of discernable features burned away. “Is that why I’m here?” he croaked in a dry whisper. “Is that why you’ve captured me … locked me away … so that I will never be given that chance?”
Verchiel sent a final burst of energy through the metal of the cage. The prisoner thrashed like a fish pulled from a stream and tossed cruelly upon the land. Then he grew very still, the intensity of his injuries sending him into the embrace of unconsciousness.
The Powers’ leader released the bars and stepped back. He knew that his captive would live, it would take far more than he could conjure to destroy something so powerful, but the injuries would cause him to suffer, and that was acceptable for now.
Verchiel turned from the cage and walked toward the door. There was still much to be done; he had no more time to concern himself with prisoners of war.
“As does the Lord,” he said to himself, “I too work in mysterious ways.”
The power of Heaven, tainted by the poison of arrogance and insanity, flowed through his injured body, bringing with it the most debilitating pain—but also sweet oblivion.
The prisoner drifted in a cold sea of darkness and dreamed.
In his dreams he saw a boy, and somehow he knew that this was the Nephilim of prophecy. There was nothing special about the way he looked, or the way he carried himself, but the Powers captive knew that this was the One—this was Aaron Corbet. The boy was moving purposefully through a thicket of woods; and he wasn’t alone. Deep within the womb of unconsciousness the prisoner smiled as he saw an angel walking at the boy’s side.
Camael, he thought, remembering how he had long ago called the warrior “friend.” But that was before the jealousy, before the war, before the fall.
And then he saw the dog; it had gone ahead into the woods, but now returned to tell its master what it had found. It was a beautiful animal, its fur the color of the purest sunshine. It loved its master, he could tell by the way it moved around the boy, the way it cocked its head as it communicated, the way its tail wagged.
It would be easy to like this boy, the prisoner guessed as the sharp pain of his injuries began to intrude upon his insensate state. He pulled himself deeper into the healing embrace of the void. How could I not like someone who has caused Verchiel such distress? the prisoner wondered. And besides, Aaron Corbet had a dog.
I’ve always been a sucker for dogs.
© 2003 Thomas E. Sniegoski