Twenty miles outside of New Delphi
Gabriel and Michael landed a quarter mile from the ranch, the darkness of night cloaking their flight. It had been a painful decision, but they had chosen to head toward New Delphi first. The possibility of Julian’s involvement was too great, especially when they had seen the numerous tread marks heading in that direction. Now, twenty miles outside of the dyad’s stronghold, their worst fears were beginning to take on the strength of reality.
The sliver of moon offered the barest illumination over the tangle and scrub that surrounded the buildings. Ahead, four vehicles faced the main farmhouse, but they were in disarray, parked at odd angles with doors open. The two angels could smell the aftereffects of explosives, burnt tinder and scorched grass, gunpowder.
“I don’t like this, Michael,” Gabriel growled. “Those are Wildcat trucks, yes, but there’s no one about. Whatever happened, Charlotte would post a sentry if she could.”
His brother had to agree. With his keen angelic eyesight, he could see no guard, no one at all. It made no sense; above all else, Commander Lannon was a superior tactician, too smart to leave their flanks unguarded. Something had gone wrong. “Perhaps you were right and she did go after Alex.”
Gabriel grasped at his arm. “I told you, she would not betray me. Now she needs our help. Julian – I should have taken his head off when I had the chance. If he harms her or Alex…” With his other hand, he pulled out his sword, the steel ringing like a bell in the cool darkness of the night. Michael could see the tendons of his knuckles even in the pale moonlight, so tightly did he hold the grip. The corner of Gabriel’s mouth turned up in a cruel smirk. “If he harms them, he’ll wish I had.”
Michael reached down and drew both his swords. He could feel his blood start to sing with call of war but there was another feeling, even more primal, that made his heart beat faster, prouder. He stood next to Gabriel to once more fight Julian, to fight with his brother, not against him, and now, unlike the last time, their final goal was the same. It had been a very long time since he had felt this kind of camaraderie with a member of his family.
It didn’t matter whether he was right or wrong about Charlie, what mattered most was that he and Gabriel were on the same side. Together with Alex, he almost felt like they had a chance. But first, they needed to rescue the Chosen One.
Michael pointed his sword toward the farmhouse where a few lights shone through scattered windows. “As brothers, then?”
Gabriel grinned, the bloodlust that sparked in his eyes making it a brutal, fearsome sight, and drew up the hood of his leather duster. “As brothers.”
Julian had taken his place in the leather chair, reclining it as far back as it would go. He crossed his feet and lay back with his arms folded across his chest, eyes closed, an air of contentment settling over his features. Finally, it was all going to come together.
Across the room, Jenkins sat with his commander in a pair of metal chairs that matched the one that Alex had been strapped to. Around them, a motley collection of Wildcats and soldiers from Delphi stood. They were all waiting, some more patiently than others.
Alex sat in another corner, still bound but now gagged, guarded by two eight-balls with short, deadly looking weapons. He never stopped looking, watching. The effects of the drugs had fully worn off and he was almost hyper-alert. Every time his gaze fell on his mother, she could feel the cold burn of his rage.
Charlotte angled her chair away from the rest of the room, from Alex. “I hate waiting.”
“You always have.” Jenkins pulled the cheroot out of the corner of his mouth and spun it between his fingers. Tobacco flakes fell to the floor in a tiny brown snowfall. “These things don’t get any better with age.”
Charlotte suppressed a smile. “Good thing the war came along or you might have died of lung cancer.”
He rolled his eyes. “Remind me to thank Gabriel for that.”
“Speaking of,” she said, still quietly. “I expected him by now.”
“Have faith, mum. Everything in time.”
As if he had heard their conversation, one of Julian’s eight-ball sentries took that moment to walk into the room and toward his boss. He leaned down and whispered into the dyad’s ear. The relaxed look of satisfaction bloomed into a toothy grin. “Thank you, Morax. Get the men ready, will you?”
Charlotte was amazed at how gracefully Julian leapt out of the recliner; from her experience, they were never easy to extricate oneself from. “Head’s up, people!” he announced. “We have a couple of visitors coming in.” Like an old-time movie impresario, he waved his arms in the air grandly. “Places everyone!”
Gabriel was a formidable warrior and brilliant military leader, but the one thing his brother had never been able to teach him was stealth. They approached the back door of the farmhouse quietly enough, finding not a soul in sight, but when they reached it, Gabriel sent it exploding inward with one mighty kick of his booted foot. It sounded like a mortar blast had gone off.
The two archangels entered a small room that had once been a laundry area, complete with cast iron utility sink and sagging cabinets. A man in fatigues and a ratty poncho was just entering the room to investigate the noise when Gabriel caught him by the neck and forced the side his ragged head into the wall of the sink, making a distinctive “thunk.” The man slipped to the floor, unconscious.
“One down,” Gabriel announced. “You worked with Charlotte’s people, do you recognize him?”
“No,” Michael said. “He looks more like Julian’s.”
“Agreed. I don’t think we need bother to interrogate.”
They stepped over the slumped body and were just about to leave the tiny room when another figure appeared in the doorway. With both hands, Gabriel quickly grabbed the newcomer around the head and wrenched violently to the side. A gruesome crack erupted from his neck and that body, too, fell unmoving to the floor.
The archangel stared down at his handiwork. He looked pleased. “Eight-ball. Definitely one of Julian’s.”
Michael pondered the still form. “We need to find Alex. I don’t know what Julian has planned for him, but it can’t be good.”
“We need to find both of them, Alex and Charlotte, and then we need to send that forsaken dyad back to the ether where he belongs.”
They moved along a hallway, as quietly as Michael could get his brother to be, and toward the main part of the house. Strangely, they found no other guards or personnel, and it made Michael nervous. Something wasn’t right.
From the far end of a long hallway, they could hear commotion up ahead. Gabriel made to rush forward but his brother held him back. Then they both heard Charlotte’s voice, a strangled yelp of pain, and there was no way that Michael could hold his brother at bay.
The two angels ran the rest of the way toward the large open area that had once been the living and dining rooms and burst through the arched doorway with swords drawn. What they found there was alarming. Wildcats lay scattered about on the floor or slumped against walls, Julian’s soldiers standing over them with rifles and handguns. In one corner, Alex was bound to a chair, a crude gag shoved in his mouth, his eyes wide and imploring, an eight-ball holding a submachine gun to his head.
Gabriel’s first instinct was to run into the room, his sword slashing, but he stopped as Julian came out from behind a corner.
The dyad’s arm was wrapped around Charlotte’s waist and he pressed a short, curved blade against her neck. “Gabriel, Gabriel,” he called out mockingly. “Always rushing in where other angels fear to tread.”
Michael came up immediately behind his brother, his keen mind assessing the situation in milliseconds. The feeling that there was something deeply wrong had not left him. He looked down at the Wildcats strewn across the floor, their weapons flung away from them. Alex, his eyes huge, shook his head violently, trying to scream through the gag, his fear evident. On the other side of the room, Charlotte stood pressed again Julian, her head tipped back, her hands out to the side in surrender. She’d never had the chance to draw a weapon.
No, that wasn’t right…
He remembered the hostage rescue exercise, the gleaming silver gun pressed to Alex’s head…
…there was no blood….
“Gabriel, it’s a trap!” he shouted, but an instant too late. The supposedly unconscious Wildcats at their feet turned over suddenly, strange black pistols in their hands, and fired. Twin wires shot out from each weapon, burrowing into the archangels’ skin, into Michael’s chest and Gabriel’s thigh. Simultaneously, massive electric current coursed through the archangels’ bodies, arching their backs and sending their arms flying open. It went on for excruciating seconds until both of them fell onto the floor, their limbs still convulsing spasmodically, swords falling from their hands, eyes wide with shock and pain.
“Brilliant!” Julian shouted as he pulled his arms from around Charlotte and slid the knife into his belt. He rubbed his hands together in glee. “You told me that they would work, Commander, but I never expected that they would work so well! I have to say, this is better than anything I’ve got, I must purchase a few from you.”
“Not for sale.” Charlotte’s voice was taut as she stared at the two archangels on the floor. She rubbed the back of her hand along her neck where the dyad had pressed the blade of the knife in a little too hard, causing her to cry out in pain.
Her head jerked toward her Wildcats, now off the floor and re-armed. “You’ve only got about a minute before the stun effect starts wearing off. I want those manacles on them before they regain any control. Don’t disengage the barbs until you get them tied up in case you need to hit them again.”
Four men went immediately to work. Both Michael and Gabriel were disoriented, weak and unable to control their limbs, their bodies’ electrical systems still overloaded. The Wildcats dragged them across the floor into nearby chairs, set them down and drew their arms around toward the back. Each archangel was fit with a set of the thick manacles, their wrists and forearms encased in the gleaming metal. Rope was quickly wrapped around their chests and tied off, fastening them to the chairs.
Charlotte watched as they gradually became more lucid, Gabriel recovering faster than his brother. She motioned one of her men over. He checked Michael’s pulse at his neck, then lifted the archangel’s eyelid, flashing a light into it. “He’s fine,” the medic announced. “Just slow to recover.”
The Wildcat moved toward Gabriel. “If you touch me,” Gabriel croaked out, his voice gravelly, his eyes still closed, “it will be the last thing you ever do.”
Charlotte shook her head, waving the medic off. She watched Gabriel for a moment. It seemed that he was sitting still, but she knew that wasn’t true. The corded muscles in his neck and jaw belied the effort he was expending trying to do something she knew was impossible.
“Give it up,” she finally said. “It won’t work.”
He opened his eyes and looked up at her through the hair that had fallen over his face. If he hadn’t been tied up and in agony, he might have appreciated the sight as she stood before him. The tight green top and jeans hugged the curves of her well-toned body, and the tall boots and long leather coat… well, leather had always been his favorite.
“It seems to be working for you,” he muttered sardonically, letting his eyes close again. “You’ve got all sorts of new friends.”
She leaned in closer, her voice low in his ear. “I know what you’re doing, Gabriel. Stop wasting your energy. That pain you feel? That’s the electric manacles, the same thing we just hit you with but at a different level. They won’t let you use your wings, you simply can’t, so stop trying. You can smash the chair and use your head as a battering ram and take out everyone in this room, but you can’t use your wings and you won’t get out of them. Eventually somebody will take you down, you can’t get away. Be smart, just give it up.”
“Your invention?” he asked.
“My design, yes.”
“Clever girl.” He opened his eyes again but she was already walking away.
“Gabriel.” Michael’s voice was as hoarse as his was; the involuntary convulsions must have affected even their throats.
“Yes, brother, I’m here. Don’t struggle, they’ve got us in some kind of contraption. It’s not worth the effort.”
“It was a trap,” Michael continued, his voice weak but getting stronger. “There was no blood, there was no battle.” He had realized that in this scenario Charlotte had been unarmed, her weapons still in their holsters, but there was no way she would have failed to draw with the rest of her troops. “It was all just an act.”
“I know.” The sound of defeat in Gabriel’s voice was nearly heartbreaking. “She used Alex to lure us here. She’s working with Julian.”
The dyad seemed to know they were talking about him. He sauntered over, gloating like a schoolboy with all the marbles. “A regular reunion, isn’t it? First Alex comes to visit, and then you two. I feel so popular.”
“You don’t need him, you’ve got us now,” Michael responded, his strength gradually returning, pulling against his ropes in frustration. “Your grievance is with us, Julian, let Alex go.”
“Oh, no, no. We’ve got big plans for Charlotte’s little boy.” He turned back toward her. “Don’t we, love?”
Her hand waved toward two other Wildcats, then at her son. “Untie him from the chair, take the gag out. He’s not going anywhere, especially when we have his two friends here.”
Gabriel noticed the coolness in her voice, the casual, almost lazy sense of command. It was a side of her that he was not familiar with, even the way she walked was different. Then again, none of this was familiar to him, he still could not believe what he was seeing. Her troops seem to have taken on equally alternate personalities. They were dressed quite ridiculously, even the normally staid Jenkins.
Interesting though, he thought to himself, she’d said “two friends.” Obviously, she’d kept Gabriel’s real relationship to Alex to herself.
Alex hadn’t been silent throughout the attack on the two archangels, but the gag had muffled even his most ardent protestations. However, as soon as they pulled the sodden cloth from his mouth, he started up again. “They’re working together, Michael! She’s going to take Vega!”
“Oh really, Alex!” Julian threw up his arms in disbelief. “We give you a little freedom and you abuse it. Charlotte, I realize you haven’t had much of a say in his upbringing, but he is your son, can’t you keep him quiet?”
She gave a long-suffering sigh. “Jenkins, if Alex says another word, would you please out a bullet through Michael’s head?”
“Yes, mum.” The XO moved toward the other side of the room and pulled out a SIG 9mm. He held it at ease behind the archangel’s chair.
“Alex?” she questioned. “Do you have anything else to say?”
The young man glared at her, the hatred that blazed in his eyes palpable, but he remained silent.
“That’s better. Now, Julian.” She walked over to the dyad, her movements fluid and sensual, warming up where she had previously been cold as ice. She dropped two small keys into his hand. “Everyone’s here except for your associate. I’ve held up my side of the bargain, what about yours?”
“I told you, in time, m’ dear. To be honest, I didn’t expect to have things wrapped up so tidily so soon. If the manacles work as well as your little stun guns, I won’t have any problem getting these two back to New Delphi.”
Her eyes sparkled coyly. “Oh, they’ll work just as designed. I don’t think we’re going to have any problems with that.”
Michael was getting even more desperate. “Gabriel and I will go with you willingly, Julian, let Alex go.”
The dyad turned on them explosively. “This!” He stormed over to the two archangels. “This is the problem! You act like you’re more important than anyone else, that this is all about you. You and I both know that Alex has a destiny, he has a purpose, and I’m going to help him fulfill it. Not you, Michael, me!”
“Alex’s purpose is to bring humans and angels together!”
“And so he shall! He already is, just look at us here, working together to capture you two!” Julian leaned in until he was a few inches from Michael’s face. “You’ve been holding him back, Michael. He has a greater destiny than you’ve let him know. I’m going to take him to the one who can help him reach that. A different archangel.”
“Yes, big brother himself.” The dyad stood up again. “I’ve found that Lucifer and I have quite a bit in common – unfairly cast out of heaven, damned to darkness by a self-righteous hypocrite, that sort of thing. He’s got the right ideas, Michael, he feels the same way I do about things. It’s time my brothers and sisters stop living under the yoke of the higher angels, subject to their whims, under their rule. Lucifer wants to free us all, humans and angels, to live our lives without your moral superiority getting in the way of everything we do.”
“He wants anarchy.”
“He wants freedom!” Julian’s voice rose to a screech, then he stopped, breathing slowly, regaining control. “Lucifer wants what’s best for us all, and I’m going to help him get it.”
“By sacrificing the Chosen One.”
The dyad threw his hands up nonchalantly. “If you want to make an omelet…”
Michael let his gaze fall to the floor. He tried to flex his arms, his wings, but it was as impossible as Gabriel had warned him. He looked up to find Julian settling into a large leather chair, his feet raised comfortably.
The archangel’s eyes travelled over toward Alex. The young man had lost the anger that had burned in him before. Julian’s callous disregard for his life, the desperation of their circumstances, it had been just too much, and he slumped in his captors’ arms. Michael had never seen the young man so defeated looking; he couldn’t decide if he wanted to scream or cry.
He finally turned his gaze to Alex’s mother, his expression filled with nothing short of contempt. “I can’t believe that you’re part of this, Charlie. You bore the Chosen One in your womb,” he spat out. “How could you turn your back on him? How could you do that to all of us?”
The commander froze, her back toward the archangel, but Alex answered instead. “Don’t bother, Michael,” he said quietly from across the room. “She doesn’t care, it was all an act. We’re nothing to her, I’m nothing to her.”
“Mum?” Jenkins asked, his gun raised toward the Michael’s head. He’d had orders.
Charlotte pursed her lips. “Stand down, Jenkins, that won’t be necessary.”
Alex continued, getting louder. “Why don’t you tell him what I really was? Just a drunken mistake, isn’t that what you said, Mom?” The last word dripped with melancholy bitterness.
Gabriel’s head snapped up. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. A drunken mistake?
Michael, on the other hand, looked as if he had been gut-punched. “Father chose you, Charlie. He chose you to be Alex’s mother.”
Suddenly Charlotte whirled to face him, eyes blazing. “Your ‘father’ never did me any favors, so don’t give me any of that bullshit.” Then, with deliberate slowness, she walked over and set her foot on the seat of the chair between his legs. She leaned over, resting her hand on her raised knee. Her voice was malevolently icy. “If you think leaving me knocked up and alone with nowhere to go was some kind of goddamned honor, you’ve got another thing coming.” Slowly, she leaned toward him, her face moving near, never looking down, the hard sole of her boot drawing down dangerously toward his crotch. Every male in the room watched in fearful anticipation. “And you will do me the courtesy of using my title of Commander.”
Michael said nothing, did nothing but glare back. The moment stretched on until the side of the Charlotte’s mouth twitched up into a self-satisfied smirk and she straightened back up. Then, without warning, the foot that had been on the chair seat jerked up and planted firmly into the archangel’s chest, sending him and the chair crashing backwards.
Alex dived forward, struggling to get loose while Gabriel helplessly watched his brother hit the floor. Michael’s head bounced violently off the rock-hard wood and his bound arms smashed between the floor and the back of the chair. The chair strained but did not break. Less could be said of the archangel as he lay there, moaning, dazed, his eyes unfocused.
“You bitch!” Alex lunged at her as she walked past but Julian’s guards had him well in hand.
Charlotte glanced up at Jenkins, standing only a few feet away from the tipped chair. Only he saw the split-second of doubt that flashed across her features, the clenched fists, the deep breath. His head bobbed in the tiniest of nods – she could do this, she had to do this. He watched as the steel returned to her spine and her expression hardened.
Julian threw his hands in the air and laughed. “Oh, I love it! Family drama! It really is where we get all our best stories, isn’t it? Trust me, Alex, parents are never what we expect them to be. Am I right, Michael?” He waited for an answer but heard nothing. “I guess he doesn’t want to talk about it, always was the stoic type, wasn’t he? What these two couldn’t teach you about daddy issues, Alex.” He watched as Alex stared horrified at Michael’s still form. “Oh, that’s right, you don’t know your daddy, do you? The Chosen One is a true bastard. Well, maybe we can get mum here to tell us, cheer you up.”
Charlotte turned her back on the archangels and crossed behind the dyad, leaning her elbows on his shoulders. The fingers of one gloved hand traced along his collar and down his breastbone. She pressed her face to the side of his head and spoke in a low, sultry voice. “As much as I hate to admit it, that was a long time ago, and after a while, well, they all sort of blend together.”
Julian sprang from the chair gracefully, spinning around to her side. He grasped her hand, turned it over and kissed the inside of her wrist, never taking his eyes from hers. “Gabriel,” he called, the side of his mouth still against the exposed skin. “You’ve been remarkably silent. That’s not like you. I’d have expected at least one insult by now, unless…”
“Unless I haven’t figured out what kind of crazy you are today,” Gabriel deadpanned, looking up from Michael’s unmoving figure. “Diagnosis is difficult when there are so many choices.”
“There we go!” Julian flung his arms up in the air again, releasing Charlotte’s hand. “Now it’s a party.” He glanced at Michael still on the floor. “Oh, do pick him up, will you? He’s not dead, we’re not that lucky.” Two of his eight-balls righted the chair, and the archangel did his best to focus. Julian went back over to slap his cheek. “Come on now, you don’t want to miss everything, do you?”
It took an extraordinary force of will for Michael to concentrate enough to fix his eyes on the dyad, then on the rest of the room. He could see Alex, now held by two strong guards. The young man struggled, but it was a half-hearted attempt. The despair Michael had seen before was returning. Some of it no doubt had to do with the circle of men and women that had gradually filled the room, Wildcats and eight-balls and Julian’s other troops, all armed and waiting for instruction.
Michael blinked once and again, trying to focus – his head had hit the floor harder than he thought. He watched as Julian walked back to Alex’s mother and wrapped an arm around her waist, overly familiar. It made him ill. He was sure Alex felt the same way.
The only comfort was Gabriel sitting next him, still tied to the chair, yes, and still bound by the infernal electric manacles. His brother’s chin was thrust forward menacingly as it always was when he was angry, and he glared from beneath his brow, but strangely, only at Julian. The glances that Gabriel would take at Alex’s mother were filled more with questions than fury. Michael didn’t understand: why wasn’t his brother fuming at Charlie when she was the one who had put them in this situation?
“Now Gabriel,” the dyad continued. “Where were we? Ah, yes, I believe I was wondering why you’ve been so silent. We’ve all heard the rumors – you and the commander here, you dog.” He jerked her middle and pulled her uncomfortably closer. “Are you really going to sit there and say nothing while I take your woman away from you?”
Gabriel’s eyebrow rose as he watched Charlotte none-too-delicately remove Julian’s hand from her waist. His lip curled up and he laughed haughtily. “Good luck with that one, Julian. The commander may be a traitorous whore, but she will never belong to any man.”
The room grew uncomfortably silent. Relieving herself of the dyad’s grasp, Charlotte sauntered slowly back over toward the two archangels, her steps as carefully placed as a model on a catwalk. Her eyes met Gabriel’s and held them for almost a full minute before her hand swung violently across his face, the fine leather making a resounding crack as it hit his cheek.
He took longer than she expected to recover, his face turned away as he worked his jaw experimentally, running his tongue along the inside of his lip and tasting blood. Finally, he turned to look at her again, sullenly peering up at her from under his brow. “I imagine you’ve been waiting to do that for some time.”
Her arm rose to backhand him again, but then she thought twice of it. Instead, she reached and took his lower face in her gloved hand, squeezing tightly as she raised his head up to look at her. He was nearly helpless with his arms still bound in the electric manacles and roped to the chair. She could feel the muscles of his jaw clenching while his nostrils flared and his eyes blazed.
“Really, we mustn’t,” he sneered salaciously, “not in front of the children.”
She answered by swinging her leg over his and landing heavily on his hips. There was no way the angel could avoid a grunt of pain and his eyes shot open. Still holding his face, she leaned against him, pressing her breasts against his chest plate.
Her eyes locked on his, only inches apart, then travelled down and up his body. “It was fun, I’ll give you that.” She let out a contented sigh, leaning even closer.
He grimaced and squirmed in her grasp, trying vainly to move away. “I hope you enjoyed yourself,” he rumbled.
“Oh, I did.” She grabbed his chin and forced his face to the side, then flicked her tongue out and licked his cheek. “I like the taste of archangel,” she hissed between clenched teeth.
Gabriel’s teeth ground as she swung her leg off of him, pushing him back in the chair and nearly sending it toppling over like his brother’s. He glowered at her sullenly as she walked back toward the dyad.
Charlotte looked around the room. Julian and his minions were nearly salivating over her performance, just as she had hoped. Both Michael and Alex looked as if they were about to be sick. Her troops had managed to position themselves evenly around the space. Things were going according to plan.
She once again strolled seductively toward the dyad, sliding her hands up over his shoulders and down his back, resting them there with fingers splayed. She sighed. “I’m bored, Julian. I don’t want to play with archangels any more, it’s not like they’re any threat with the manacles on. When are we going to meet this contact of yours? You said they would be here. I want to get this over with and get back to my people. I have things to do.” She emphasized the last sentence.
“Soon, love,” Julian placated. “Not the type you hurry, if you know what I mean.” He gave a slightly nervous smile. Once again, he tried to grasp her, only to have her slip through his hands like smoke. Like everyone else he watched her pace the room, a caged black panther in leather and heels. “Soon.”
Jenkins had caught the signal – the commander’s hands on the dyad’s back. Seven fingers meant that they had just over half the battery life left on the manacles; they tended to drain fast in the beginning, especially if the captive struggled. How their creators had come up with this testing method still boggled his mind. Originally, they had planned to use a galvanic skin sensor to test the strength of the manacle battery, but Charlotte hadn’t wanted to be that obvious, she’d insisted on alternate methods. Jenkins mentally shook his head – what nutcase had decided that licking was good option? And who volunteered to be put into electric manacles and then licked by a scientist, or worse, their commanding officer? But it had worked, and they had added that option to their game plan.
Although now, watching Charlotte as she prowled around the room, a strange seductive mélange of commandant and dominatrix, the XO thought he just might have put himself on the list of test subjects for that particular experiment. It would have been worth the pain.
Jenkins wet his lips, trying to keep his expression blank. Dyad or not, Julian had no chance, he simply didn’t know it yet.
The most difficult thing was avoiding their eyes.
Charlotte had been a fairly successful actress in college, one of those people who were just starting to create a “buzz.” Being a pragmatist, she’d always had her fallback psychology degree planned, and living on her own she’d been forced to work when many of her fellow acting students had been performing in small, local shows, but she had had enough exposure that people were starting to remember her face, her name. People that mattered. She had hoped that when she graduated in the spring of 2016 she would have been able to say goodbye to the diner (as difficult as that would be) and pick up a counseling job that would let her do more weekend plays, fill her resume. She was a good actress, she just had to prove it.
She was proving it now.
It was a toss-up whether the role of Julian’s sex-kitten partner was more difficult than that of Alex’s uncaring bitch of a mother, but both of them were taking it out of her. Then there was Gabriel. There was more than one time that she’d had to grab a chair (or in one case Jenkins) to keep from running across the room to the aid of her son or her husband. Years of command, difficult decisions and hard choices had given her a steel backbone but it had never completely removed her humanity, and she was proud of it. Nothing, however, had prepared her for a situation like this.
She felt their eyes upon her, felt the searing hatred from Alex, from Michael. And from Gabriel? In that long moment that they’d stared at each other while she straddled him, she thought – no, she prayed – that he’d seen beyond the surface, beyond the agony she was putting him through, but it was impossible to tell. Enigmatic at the best of times, anger and pain made reading him hopeless right now.
Just a little longer. They were near the end, the dénouement she’d been working on for months. It was all going to be worth it in the end, she had to keep going.
This was the most important performance of her life. For a little while, at least, she’d have to keep working to avoid their eyes.
The sky was just beginning to lighten in the east, the precursor to dawn, and everyone was waiting for the Morning Star. Outside the farmhouse, dual pairs of sentries prowled the grounds, one from New Delphi, one set of Wildcats. Inside the house, things were quieter than they’d been for hours, blanketed in a thick layer of tension and anticipation.
Over the course of the day, Charlotte had sent her troops off to rest in shifts. She herself had slept on the trip from Vega, the habit of “catching sleep when you can” ingrained into her early in the war. Now she sent her Wildcats either off to bed down for a few hours or to tend to the vehicles and weaponry. With the archangels secured, she stated, there was no reason for half a platoon to remain in the house.
Julian had nestled back into the leather recliner, pulling a scantily clad female eight-ball over him like a comforter. He eyed Charlotte hungrily while he stroked the eight-ball’s long hair and ran his fingers across her exposed skin. His fantasies were only too obvious.
The dyad had also let many of his people wander off to rest while they waited for the last member of the negotiations to arrive. Seeing the archangels try, and fail, to move in the manacles, he’d felt confident that a nominal guard was sufficient. Besides, he still had the Chosen One.
Alex had finally fallen asleep, strapped back into the metal chair in the far corner of the dining area. The sight of his father and his mentor, both powerful archangels and both now reduced to the role of merchandise in a contract negotiated by his own mother, had been too much for him. Hatred and anger could only sustain him for so long, eventually the adrenaline faded away and exhaustion had taken its toll.
Michael watched him sleep from the other side of the room. The violent impact with the floor coming so soon after the electrical assault caused by the Wildcat weapon had hurt more than usual. The archangel had been left feeling weak and disoriented. Over the course of the last few hours, he had recovered somewhat but not as well as he had expected. The greatest problems, of course, were his arms and wings. Despite Gabriel’s warnings, he’d tried time and time again to overcome the infernal manacles, to no avail. Frustrated, fatigued and in pain, he’d finally given up a few hours ago.
Now, like his brother, he sat off to the side of the room, head hung low, without a plan or even the beginning of the plan. “Gabriel, are you sleeping?” he whispered, although there was no one with ten feet to hear.
“No,” Gabriel grumbled. “I don’t think this is the time for sleeping.”
“Lucifer could arrive at any time. We can’t let him take Alex.”
“I’m well aware, brother. It is the entire reason we came here.”
“It’s these manacles, they’re so effective, Julian hasn’t even bothered to guard us.” Michael’s brows lifted around a grimace of pain. “It’s rather insulting.”
The ghost of smile flitted across Gabriel’s features. Michael was finally learning to find humor in the face of danger. There might be hope for him yet. “Charlotte’s little toys are quite ingenious, and well made. The only improvement would be to make them of empyrean steel.”
“No. Too heavy for aluminum, I’d say probably stainless steel. The current doesn’t seem to go through the manacles as much as into our arms. They’re not wired to anything, they run on some kind of battery.”
“What difference does that make?”
A slow, knowing look grew across Gabriel’s face. “Haven’t you noticed anything? The pain?”
Michael frowned, then tilted his head to the side. His brother could see understanding bloom in his eyes.
“Don’t say anything,” Gabriel whispered. “We don’t want their attention, but if this continues…”
“A design flaw.” Michael looked vindicated. “One that we can exploit.”
“Exploit, yes, but a flaw? No, I don’t think so.” For a moment, Gabriel sat and watched Charlotte as she discussed some matter with her XO. Her expressive hands were still covered in the fine leather gloves. He’d never known her to wear gloves, and yet she hadn’t taken them off. And that strange behavior from last night – licking his face? They’d done many things in the bedroom (the memories brought him a momentary flicker of warmth) but that one seemed out of character. Too many things were too far out of the norm. Even for someone who had abandoned her friends and family, her behaviors were bizarre. Too bizarre. She’d been avoiding his eyes since their verbal sparring match and he hadn’t been able to get a read on what lay behind them. There had to be another reason for what she was doing, and maybe he had just found it.
“No,” he continued, “I think they were made exactly according to design.”
Word arrived like a children’s game of telephone, passed from one sentry to another and another and finally whispered into Julian’s ear as he reclined in the big chair. He shoved the female eight-ball off him unceremoniously. “How far?” he demanded.
The last messenger gave him a mumbled answer and slunk away. Julian’s mouth twitched to the side, although it was difficult to say whether it was out of nerves or happiness.
He took a quick inventory of the space. There were a half dozen Wildcats hanging about doing whatever Wildcats did, and seven of his own people, plus the two archangels, the commander and her XO off in the corner. Her son dozed in a chair in what had been the formal dining room. That would have to be fixed; he couldn’t turn over his prize in less than peak physical form.
“Alex,” he said, walking over and tapping the boy’s face less than gently. “Alex, wake up. You’re about to have a visitor. Time to put on your traveling shoes.”
Alex’s head snapped up but his eyes remained unfocused. However, it took less than a second of seeing the dyad before he was lucid enough to remember where he was and why. “Go to hell, Julian. Oh, wait, you’re bringing hell here.”
“Oh, Alex. Your quaint human attempts to understand our reality have always made me smile. George Burns as God, a sweet kindly old man. Tim Curry as Lucifer, all red devil and horns. Things are very different than what you think they are. You’ll understand. Soon.” Julian laughed and patted his face again, then sauntered away chuckling.
Alex hadn’t understood what the dyad had been rambling about, but as he watched him stroll confidently away, he was more afraid than ever.
“Make sure the front door is open, I don’t want to seem inhospitable,” Julian bellowed to one of his human guards. “And please, do something about your hair; you look like you combed it with an egg beater.”
Given Julian’s rather laissez-faire attitude toward his own style, Charlotte was surprised to hear him say this, but it spoke volumes to the dyad’s mindset. He was still an underling, a servant longing to please his master. As much as he wanted to convey the idea that he and Lucifer were on equal footing in this deal, it simply wasn’t true.
Charlotte turned toward Jenkins. They’d been quietly going over plans for the last two hours, plans that had nothing to do with what was really going to happen next. Now she looked at him gravely. “You really think we can pull this off.”
“I do, mum.” He tilted his head toward the other side of the room, the side where the archangels sat. “I think someone else does, too. Someone you’ve been quite obviously avoiding.”
She had been. Steeling herself, she raised her face to look at Gabriel. As if he could sense her, he took that moment to look up toward her.
She’d expected to see pain, fury, perhaps even disgust, but there was none of that. Instead, he gazed at her with patience…and trust. One eyebrow rose ever so slightly in question.
He knew, and he wondered what her plan was.
She turned away, clenching her teeth so as not to grin or laugh or otherwise burst out in an expression of joy – that would simply not do. But he knew, he knew! He would follow her lead.
Michael, on the other hand, was confused. One glance in his direction was enough to show that. He had mistrusted her, for good reason, and he wasn’t about to trust her again so easily. Gabriel might be pleading in her favor – she had seen the two whispering together when they thought no one was looking – but Michael seemed unconvinced.
Michael could be a problem.
An excited rustle went through the assembled soldiers, humans, and possessed like a whitecap rolling up the shore, starting with the sentries on the perimeter and moving though the outbuildings to the farmhouse, up the hallway and into the large double room that Julian had made his theater. A whisper of “they’re here!” that finally broke when Julian looked up from his La-Z-Boy throne to see that “they” was a bit of a misnomer. “They” was singular, escorted into the room by two of the guards from New Delphi not usually known for their immense size but who looked like giants beside the new arrival.
The tiny figure was dressed head to knee in a robe of some kind of thick, quilted wool, nearly black, with the deep hood pulled well over their face, obscuring it completely. Both hands were buried into the sleeves of the other side. The only body parts that showed were a pair of boots on tiny feet, well-worn and trail dusty, neither masculine nor feminine. Just boots.
Julian climbed out of the recliner gingerly, not springing from it like a cat as he had done before. Everything about the figure screamed “use caution” even with its diminutive size. This was not what he had been expecting.
“Welcome,” he offered. “I’m sorry I couldn’t offer you the hospitality of my city, but I thought perhaps this first time, it would be wise to keep this a more intimate affair.”
Small, delicate hands, the color of chocolate caramels, extended from the depths of the sleeves and reach up to the hood. The hands pulled it back, revealing a face so exquisitely beautiful that Julian gasped in spite of himself. Skin the same luscious color, long, almond shaped eyes in a striking grey, high cheekbones, full, sensual lips, all highlighted by hair cropped so close to her elegantly formed head as to almost be nonexistent.
On the other side of the room, Gabriel also gasped.
Michael had a different reaction. His heart skipped. “Raphael!”
She turned away from the dyad and strolled over toward the two archangels. Her eyes, almost a metallic grey, sparkled. “Hello, brothers. I didn’t expect you so soon.”
“Sister, what are you doing here?”
Julian stormed across the room, wondering the same thing. “Yes, what are you doing here? I was expecting Lucifer.”
The newcomer arranged the heavy hood around her shoulders like a cowl, then began carefully rolling her wide sleeves. Everything she did was performed with the grace of a ballerina. She looked back from her brothers over to her host and smiled beatifically. “Lucifer asked me to come in his place, to meet with you, dear Julian, or do you prefer Lyrae? He sends his warmest regards, of course, but unfortunately he is not yet in the condition to attend himself.”
Julian was slightly mollified. Michael, however, was horror struck. “You’re working for Lucifer?”
She tittered musically. “No, of course not, sweet brother. Lucifer and I are working together. He has wonderful plans for this world, and now that Father is gone, now that we know we will have the Chosen One, we can make them come true.” Again, she beamed, her face glowing in the knowledge of the truth of her words.
“I cannot believe what you’re saying, sister,” Michael retorted. “You’ve aligned with Lucifer? How can you do this? You know how he went against Father’s wishes. You helped us to cast him down from Heaven.”
“I think if you remember correctly I was pressed into service for that, Michael.” The smile fell from her beautiful features. “You and Uriel were all too happy to take up arms against our own brother, and Gabriel, well we all know how he betrayed Lucifer. No, I never agreed with Father, but I had no choice against the three of you. But now,” her mood changed again and she moved toward Julian, “we shall erase all those unfortunate millennia and get back to the way things ought to be. Lucifer can move forward with his work, thanks to Lyrae and his brethren.” Turning her back on the two archangels, she completely dismissed them, returning to Julian’s side and taking up with her aborted pleasantries.
Gabriel let out a low snarl of frustration as he watched Julian glow in her praise. “I fear for our sister, Michael,” he said quietly enough that only his brother could hear. “She’s become a revisionist. I’ll admit she never was fond of the sword, but was it not she who petitioned Father to have Lucifer cast down? She’s forgotten her role in this farcical game.”
“Father’s departure affected her as deeply as the rest of us,” Michael agreed. “She’s been missing this whole time.”
“Lucifer no doubt sought her out. He’s a master at taking advantage of less than stable hearts.”
“You would know.”
“Yes, exactly,” Gabriel growled. His gaze passed from his sister and Julian, bantering like old friends, and off toward where Charlotte stood in the corner of the room. She had moved close to Alex, closer than she had been the entire time they had been in the farmhouse. It couldn’t be pleasant; her son’s hatred of her was nearly palpable, even at this distance.
She had also neglected to introduce herself to the newly arrived archangel. Interesting.
Michael, however, was more interested in their sibling. “Raphael!” he called again, trying to restart their conversation. His sister had always been fond of talking about herself. “Where have you been? We looked for you, all of us. Uriel spent years trying to find you.”
The diminutive archangel looked back at him, her attention momentarily torn. “I don’t know that you would have ever found me. I didn’t want to be found.”
“Why? Why did you abandon your family?”
She strode back toward them purposefully. “My family abandoned me!” she thundered, suddenly furious. “First Father left, and then you two went off to fight each other. I wanted nothing of it! It took me months to find a place uninfected by your humans, possessed or otherwise. I simply wanted to be alone!”
Michael was taken aback. Raphael had always been social, concerned, a healer. To remove herself from all contact was indicative of a radical change of mind. He looked up at her sincerely. “We were worried about you.” He still was.
The sentiment seemed to calm her. “And I worried about you, both of you. But I couldn’t stop you, so I stayed in Chang Tang. It was quiet there.” She turned toward Gabriel and her hand stroked his cheek. “Dear brother, what chaos you’ve caused. This horrible war, all of this death. I feared for you terribly.”
The war, his war, had damaged her, Gabriel could see it in the depths of her silvery eyes. He gave her a sad smile. “I’m better now, ask Michael. I haven’t killed anyone in hours.”
“The war didn’t need to happen, you know that,” Michael countered. “You know that Lucifer manipulated Gabriel, put him in the mindset where he would open the Seventh Seal. He’s played all of us like this was a great game and he was the chess master.”
“Lucifer has a plan,” Raphael repeated. “Just as Father did. It isn’t any different. Father was always manipulating people, putting them in situations where they would have one choice, the only choice that would work for His plan. Lucifer is no different, he learned from the best!” She smiled as if this was some great accomplishment. “You’ve done what needed to be done to bring about this moment, to bring the Chosen One to him. It was all in the plan!”
“You’ve seen this then, in the Prophesies?”
The brilliance of her smile faded somewhat. “The Prophesies are difficult to read, you know that. Father gave them to me but He never told me how to interpret them. I’ve done my best.”
“Then Lucifer isn’t in them.”
“They speak of an end to war. How can we have an end to war if we are not united? That’s what Lucifer wants to do, dear brother, to unite us all.”
“There’s another option,” Gabriel said offhandedly. “The war’s over when everyone’s dead.”
The beautiful face turned into the petulant visage of a child. For a second, Gabriel thought she was going to stomp her foot in frustration. “You don’t understand, you refuse to understand. I can’t help you if you insist on being this way. Julian has made a deal, I can’t break it. You’re his now. If you had chosen to join me, to join us, I might have been able to do something, but not if you’re going to be this stubborn.”
“Stubborn? Stubborn!” Michael was dumbfounded. “You’re talking about our lives, sister. Our lives and the lives of everyone on this planet. What would Father think?”
“I really don’t care, Michael. Father left us. Lucifer came back. He cares about me, obviously more than Father. I’m here to help him, to bring him the Chosen One to fulfill his plan. I was hoping I could convince you to come with me, but I’m giving up, you can’t be redeemed. I’m very sorry because I love you both, but this has to end. Goodbye, brothers.” She turned and walked back toward Julian, her perfectly shaped head tucked into the deep folds of the cowl.
“Raphael…” Michael’s voice cracked.
“She can’t hear you, Michael.” Gabriel was weary. “Lucifer has made her deaf to reason. It’s time to face facts – little sister’s moved to Crazy Town.”
Raphael and Julian seemed to have much to talk about. As they continued to chat, Gabriel scanned the room once again. Little had changed. There seemed to be fewer of Julian’s people milling about, fewer of Charlotte’s for that matter. With another archangel in the room, it seemed they were not wanted.
He spied the swords that had been taken from them while they had been incapacitated, lying in a haphazard pile on an old metal table behind Alex. Charlotte leaned against the edge of the table, her legs in their long boots stretched out in front, crossed at the ankles, the picture of alluring nonchalance.
While Gabriel watched, she turned back over her shoulder to look at the weapons. One gloved hand reached out and she ran a finger down the center of a blade, his blade. It was the lazy, sensual act of a bored seductress, until she glanced up.
There was the tiniest tilt of her head, the barest raise of her brow, but he caught it. She turned back toward the sword, her hand running up to the grip, resting there. Again, she glanced at the archangel only for a fraction of a second, then she pulled her hand back, crossing her arms and leaning casually against the table once more.
She stared at him, cold, emotionless, blank.
Gabriel was impressed. He knew that she had been in acting classes, but he hadn’t expected this award-worthy performance. What to anyone else would have looked like merely another taunt aimed at her former lover, another emotional knife wound, had been in fact a complex message.
What had she called the two of them together – perfect? Yes, quite perfect, because he understood exactly what that tiny tilt of the head had meant, why she had laid her hand where she did. His own words came back to him: Next I raise this sword, it will be beside you, not against you.
His head fell forward and his eyes closed, he concentrated on the manacles, his arms, his wings. The pain was still quite bad, but not as excruciating as it had been. The batteries or whatever ran the devices were continuing to wear down. The worst of it all was the exhaustion caused by the constant firing of the muscles of his arms and shoulders – that would take some time to recover from. If necessary, though…
His eyes still closed, a satisfied, feral grin spread across his face. No one would see it unless they were watching.
He knew Charlotte was watching.
Julian felt better. For a while, it had seemed as if things were slipping out of his control. He didn’t like that feeling, it reminded him only too well of when Gabriel had seized his body and forced his own hands to thrust a sword through his gut. He mentally shook his head – best not to dwell on that thought. No, things were looking up now, what with this miniature archangel putting her brothers in their places and the commander finally finding hers. He glanced up at Charlotte briefly. The woman was like a caged panther, all sensuous energy ready to spring, but she’d finally backed off when the archangel had arrived. Hadn’t even introduced herself yet. Probably time to fix that.
Raphael finished the last bit of the negotiations that she had been delivering. He should have been paying better attention to her and not to the commander. “…and Lucifer would appreciate it if you would lend troops in support if the need should arise in this area of the world. He would send his generals to lead them.”
“Yes, of course,” he said automatically, then instantly regretted it. Definitely should have been paying better attention. What had he just agreed to?
“Very well then,” Raphael sounded to him like she was in a board meeting, not negotiating the foreseeable future of life on the planet. “The last matter is to take the Chosen One back to Lucifer. This has been quite a productive day, I can’t thank you enough for your assistance, Lyrae,” she said.
“Yes, well,” he agreed, “a pleasure to do business with you.” Even as a master of the bargaining table, Julian felt a bit disconcerted. It was time to get this done with. He looked over to the other side of the room. “Why don’t you bring the Chosen Boy over here, Commander?”
The commander looked up from her perch on the edge of the metal table and gave Julian a long-suffering look. It was about time, the look said, she’d been waiting while they talked and talked and talked. Slowly, sensually, she pulled the leather gloves off her fingers, as carefully as if it was a strip-tease act. The gloves were left on the table as she moved around to the front of Alex’s chair and pulled one of the knives from the sheath on her thigh. It was a long, wicked looking dagger with a ten-inch blade and an elongated cross piece below the handle.
Julian smiled inwardly. He did like her style.
Charlotte waved the knife in front of Alex’s face menacingly.
“Get away from me, you bitch,” he spat at her.
“Don’t move or you’ll get hurt. We can’t have damaged goods now, can we?” Her tone was no-nonsense, as if she had not even heard his insult. She squatted down in front of him and reached for the ropes that held his calves against the metal legs of the chair, carefully sliding the blade of the knife in behind them.
She took a deep breath, her head down, seemingly concentrating on the rope. This was it, the curtain was rising. “Alex, I need you to be quiet and listen to me.” Now she was nearly whispering.
“Go to hell.”
“Please, Alex.” She peered up at him briefly and he was shocked by what he saw in the short time. She looked desperate.
The knife continued to saw at the ropes, but not as quickly as it might have. She was buying time. “I know you don’t trust me,” she continued, her voice so low only he could hear, “but when the opportunity presents itself, and it will, I need you to run and hide. Stay in the buildings, don’t let this new archangel get to you, she’ll fly off with you.” She switched to the other leg and sawed away at the ropes there, her head still bent. “You’re the most important thing, you’re what this is all about. I need you to get yourself to a safe place, we’ll take care of the rest. Do you understand?”
Alex was dumbfounded. He stared down at the top of her head, the look of disgust still plastered across his features.
“Tell me you understand, Alex.” Her knife popped one rope, only one to go.
She looked up again, only a split second, but it was all that Alex needed to see. The mask she had been wearing since he had arrived fell away and he saw once again her fierce love.
“I – I do.” It was whispered but it was enough.
“Good. Follow my lead.” She popped the last strand and stood.
The knife sliced roughly through the rope that held his torso to the chair. As soon as the strands fell away, she grabbed his shoulder and yanked. “Get up,” she barked, instantly reverting back into the gruff, no-nonsense persona.
Alex stood with some difficulty – he’d been drugged or tied to a chair for over two days now, and his legs were wobbly at best. His hands were still tied together behind him which didn’t make balance any easier, but his mother had him firmly by the upper arm. He noticed that – it wasn’t an aggressive grip, she wasn’t holding a prisoner, a hostage, she was supporting him, helping him walk. He was trying to process this sudden change of heart.
Hell, he was still trying to process her first change of heart.
Wait…could it all have been an act?
“Move it!” His mother’s voice was harsh, but her actions belied the words. She wasn’t forcing him forward, she was still holding him up gently, supportive.
“You’re what this is all about.” That’s what she’d whispered.
He nervously glanced around the room as he shuffled toward Julian and the new archangel. Where was that bastard Jenkins? He wasn’t standing behind Michael anymore, threatening to put a bullet into his head. Had that been part of it, too? Was Jenkins in on it? Michael certainly didn’t seem to know anything was up, he was glaring at her as only Michael could do.
Gabriel on the other hand…Alex thought he could see the faintest smirk on the archangel’s face. Even tied to the chair, arms locked into the electric manacles, he found something humorous in the situation. Such an asshole.
Jenkins had a lifetime’s practice in stealth. First as a young child stealing an extra biscuit, a blanket, or evading a whipping, then as a soldier, in the SAS, in Afghanistan and other far off lands. For the last 25 years, he’d been trailing and eluding the angels, in all their forms, in theatres of war his young mind had never imagined. He’d gotten very good.
The best option, of course, was moving when everyone’s attention was in another direction. The commander had given the signal – “gloves off” – and then provided the distraction of moving Alex. She made it as public as possibly, drawing everyone’s attention to her so that her XO could quietly slip along the wall and out of the room.
The last act was beginning, finally! He had much to do. He pulled his radio out of his belt and quietly toggled it on.