“Are you sure we should do this?” She asked in a hushed tone. The pair leaned over the crumpled form of a girl, seemingly lifeless on the gymnasium floor. A sudden intake of breath startled them both, followed by a wheezing rattle emanating from her lungs as the air slid between her cracked lips. A red bubble popped, splattering blood across their faces.
“We have little time,” he whispered back. “She's dying. It's now or never.”
Her gaze meeting his, she breathed, “He still might find her, you know. Perhaps we should bring her home now.” She looked down at the too-thin girl clinging to life. “She's already suffered so much in this life.”
He wiped her cheek, smearing a streak of red across the limp girl's pale face. “If we take her with us now, there will be no one left to stop him.” Another breath hitched in the girl's lungs; the exhale was much longer this time.
“Take my hand, Dina. We must do this now,” he said as he reached for her.
The pair circled their arms above the body and began a rushed chant, their words growing in fervor until a slow, glowing flame burst from their encircled limbs. Rising to stand, their limbs remaining entwined, they increased their pitch, lifting their heads to the sky as the fire grew into a brilliant white-hot light arching through the night. A wispy blue spark sailed up the path of flame, following its trail until the light and the two forms standing over the dying girl winked out.
All that remained was a flashing red exit sign, casting the disfigured girl in garish repose between moments of complete darkness.
Chapter 1 - May 6th
Shadows lengthened on alley walls, and the hairs on the back of her neck rose. She cocked an ear, tilting her head to the left. Tensing, she reached for her sword, jerking as her ears popped at the sudden pressure drop.
Allie Graves dropped her arms, rolling her shoulders to relax her stance and spread her legs just a bit. A slight ringing in her ears told her it was very near. She licked her lips, placing one hand on a hip, and leaned into the wall. The casual observer might mistake her for a streetwalker in stilettos and a skirt that barely covered her lady parts. It was the perfect disguise for hunting prey, but the short skirt and thin leather vest were not enough to cover the twenty-four-inch blade strapped to her back. For that, only her reash abilities would do the trick.
Out of place in the dank alley, a slight wind ruffled her jet-black curls. Slowly, she turned, assuming an air of concern. A human could sense their presence and might even be afraid, but until they turned to face it, it would seem only a feeling of unease. Too much fear or not enough would mark her as one who knew they existed.
In one fluid motion, she spun on her toes, whipping her blade overhead to arch the point toward the demon hovering at her shoulder. She sliced from head to groin, sending him reeling into the afterworld. She barely had time to catalog his look of shock before he vanished.
Wiping the blade across her leather skirt, she sheathed it at her back and assessed the remnants of the demon: smears of bright green streaked the brick walls of the narrow apartment building where its lifeblood spattered, mirroring her spin, with a few globs dotting the ground where they had fallen prior to its moment of vanquishing. Overall, a fairly easy cleanup job. Allie pulled out her phone and dialed.
“Alley behind Boba House. Small cleanup job needed. No witnesses.” Without waiting for a reply, she closed her phone and slipped it back into the inside pocket of her vest.
This kill was much cleaner than she’d expected. The trick to killing demons was to let them believe you were an innocent, unaware human. They only put up an actual fight when they knew what was coming.
The problem with humans was that they didn’t pay enough attention to their sixth sense. All humans had it. They just preferred to live in the dark. That feeling they got in the pit of their stomach when the lights went out, or they were alone on a deserted back road at night, was telling them to get the hell out of there. But humans preferred to pretend it was nothing.
Surprisingly, the blind lack of faith in the demon hunting them usually saved their life. It turned out that demons needed some faith, just like angels, to be material enough to do harm.
Allie trekked through the streets, tuning her senses for any rogue demons that may be hunting for victims tonight. As she passed Davinci’s, the smell of tomato sauce and melted cheese wafted through the air, filling her nose. Peering through the dimly lit windows into the crowded hole-in-the-wall restaurant—always packed no matter the night of the week—the daily specials menu caught her eye, the list of pizza options in chalk handwriting adding to its local charm. The tables inside were full of friends and families crammed together, the steady buzz of conversation drawing her in.
A pang in her chest had her backing up and continuing down the street. That life was for the innocent and the naïve. She would not let people get close. People would only be hurt; they would likely even die.
Stuffing her hands into her skirt pockets, she dropped her head as people began to notice her. Older couples gave her a wide berth while men stared at her long legs streaked with filth and green blood. Swallowing hard, she pushed her feelings down low, making herself invisible once again to the surrounding humans. To them, she would appear as an afterthought. Did I see a tall, dark figure with a blade strapped to her back slinking through the late-night streets? No, it must have been my imagination, they would think, just as they wondered about the demons and angels they crossed paths with on the human plane. No, she could not have that life. Although she might technically be human, the things she knew made her a target, and targets were easier to kill when they had people they cared about.
Allie stepped into the corner store just below her apartment building, grabbing a few things for dinner before slipping out. The clerk looked up, but his unfocused gaze told her he saw nothing, chose to see nothing. Chalk this regular theft up to her charges to Alaxia for doing their dirty work. If they wanted to stop in and pay, that wouldn’t even put a dent in the debt they owed her for the past six years.
Outside the corner store, she reached for the escape ladder hanging above the first floor of her fifth-floor walk-up. The fifth floor was ideal because of the strange phenomenon that forced demons to stay below three stories—while any demon who could break through the barrier to the human plane could exist on the streets, demons could not step one foot above a third floor. She was sure it was something angels had done long ago, but she didn’t delude herself into believing they would ever share that information with her.
Dumping her goods on the table by the window, she avoided touching anything until she could wash off the blood and grime and climbed into her narrow shower, allowing the hot water to run over her body. The burning stream felt good against the vile otherworldly blood that streaked down her legs; while it didn’t scald, the otherness of it was akin to a mild chemical burn. It chafed and dried and didn’t belong there. One of the first lessons she learned when demon hunting was that soap would only exacerbate the feeling—nothing but hot water and salt could erase it.
When her skin was red and tingling, she reached for the salt jar next to the sink and scooped a handful of granules into her palm, rubbing them in circles over her legs. Paper-thin strips of skin peeled away and sloughed onto the floor, some running down the drain.
She turned off the faucet and reached for her towel. Eyes closed, she groped around on the toilet lid and found nothing. She wiped at her eyes, blinking them open through the heavily chlorinated water, and leaned out of the shower.
“What the Hell!” she gasped, as Gabriel held a hand out, a towel folded on his palm. He smirked at her frown and leaned closer. Snatching it from his grasp, she ducked back into the shower and wrapped it tightly around herself.
“What do you want?” She called from over the curtain. Gabriel cleared his throat but said nothing. Ripping the curtain aside, she faced him.
“Get dressed. We’ll talk in the kitchen.”
“I don’t want to talk in the kitchen. Tell me what you want so I can eat my dinner and go to bed.”
“Get dressed, Allie,” was all he said as he left the bathroom.
Allie took her time getting ready. Although she would normally never spend time drying and brushing out her hair after a shower, Gabriel deserved to wait.
Staring at her face in the mirror, she noticed the dark circles under her eyes for the first time. When had she gotten those? Why did she look so old? Was she supposed to look this tired at twenty-two? She sighed as she applied her lip gloss—just because, not for Gabriel—and gave herself another once over before walking into the kitchen, which doubled as a dining room and living room.
Allie sat at the table and reached for a bag of BBQ chips. Gabriel crossed the small space and pulled out the second chair. Why did she have two chairs? Gabriel was the only guest who ever visited her. She should get rid of the second one. To make him stand would be better.
“Allie.” He took a breath, his wings curling uncomfortably in the small space. She smirked at that, crunching on her chips. At least there was something good about living in this closet of an apartment.
“Allie, you’re twenty-three today.”
She frowned. Today? Was her birthday today? Shit. Another year had gone by, and she hadn’t even noticed.
“Allie, as you know, reashes are freed of their obligation one month after their six-year term of service. We respect that you have given six years of your life for our cause. But rest easy; your time as a reash is nearly at an end.” He smiled warmly at her, and she looked away.
As lonely as Allie was in this life, she couldn’t imagine any other. It was dangerous, but she was good at it, and she was making a difference in this terrible world.
“And what will I do with my life after this? I have no vocation, no skills other than hunting demons. I didn’t even graduate from high school. What’s left for me?”
Gabriel leaned forward, reaching for Allie’s hand. She pulled back, grimacing.
“There is one more thing. When your service to us is over, we will remove all memories of these past six years. You will remember none of it.”
She stopped chewing and blinked at him. Shock left her speechless as he plunged on.
“I know the idea of blinding yourself to the existing world seems daunting, but I assure you, you will not remember it was here. You will be like every other human. As your reward for the service you have provided to us, your soul will be placed under our protection, and you have our word that a demon will never possess you.” His face was open and earnest as he delivered this message.
“But…” She cleared her throat, finding her voice. “What am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?”
“We cannot interfere with your human existence; we can only protect your soul.”
“GREAT! You forgot to mention that when you offered me this amazing deal. And you what? You expected me to make rational decisions about the rest of my life at seventeen without telling me the entire story. Not that I had much of a choice. It was either die or give you six years in exchange for my life. What would you have picked?” Her argument sounded tired even to her. If there was one thing she understood after six years of working with angels, it was that they did not negotiate. Their word was law, and she knew she should be grateful. They could have let her die.
She wasn’t even sure where her soul would have ended up at seventeen. She wasn’t a terrible person, but she was no saint. Sure, she had dabbled in the occasional drugs, hadn’t believed in anything like faith or the angels, and certainly not demons. But at seventeen, her eyes had been opened, and in that same moment, she had to make a decision that would affect her for the rest of her life. How was she supposed to be held responsible for that now?
He didn’t blink as he delivered the rest of his message. “I am here to notify you that in one month, we will give you back your human life as you knew it. You will not remember me or anything that happened to you these past six years. You may find that life is difficult, but you are young and have ample opportunity to make a good life for yourself. Although we cannot promise that your soul will end up in Alaxia, any former sins committed that would have barred you from entering are now erased. Your clean slate is a better chance than any others your age will ever get. We hope you will make good choices in your human life and that we will see you again after.” He faded as he finished his sentence, not giving her a chance to respond.
She hurled her cold sandwich at the empty space where he had been. It landed with a thud on the floor. Six years had passed, and she was exhausted. Perhaps this was a blessing. She wanted what those people in Davinci’s had. Didn’t she?
She resumed crunching her chips, staring at the fridge, pondering what this last month would be like, trying to ignore the fear settling in her stomach.
Chapter 2 - May 7th
Allie woke with a start and knew immediately that something was wrong. She kept her eyes closed, using her third eye to peer around the room, though the murky haze of her awakening sight was distorted in the darkness. The slight ringing in her ears told her a demon was present, but she was safely tucked into her bed on the fifth floor—no demon could come this high. Concentrating, she stilled her breathing to the steady calm of a sleeper’s. Through the dark haze of her third eye’s sight, she detected some inhuman motion near the kitchen window.
She opened her eyes, cursing silently, as she spied her blade, still in the bathroom. It was closer to her bed than the kitchen, but not by much. Reflexes kicking in, she flung herself out of bed, diving for the sword leaning outside the shower wall. Movement too fast to track streaked across her vision and met her in the bathroom. She reached her sword just as something sharp grazed her arm, trailing a streak of pain from her wrist to her elbow. Without thinking, she plunged the blade into the blurred object.
A solid human figure dropped to the floor.
Ripping out her sword, she backed up and stared in confusion. Truly, this was no demon. But it certainly wasn’t human. Its glowing yellow cat eyes fixed on her as it hissed, but the gash across its middle leaked smoke; it had caused major damage.
“What…. What are you?” She stammered. Grabbing its stomach, it lunged away from her and out the window in a blur of movement.
For a moment, she was frozen, then she leaped up after it and leaned out the window to follow. But the thing was gone without a trace.
Breathing hard, she slammed the window shut. Heat be damned—she would not leave that window open tonight. Though something told her a closed window wouldn’t keep it out.
She stood motionless in shock for some time before retracing her steps back to the bathroom. No blood, no green ooze or goo. It wasn’t a demon which should have made her feel better, but instead made her feel worse. In the bathroom, her shower curtain had been torn from the rod, hanging askew; her towel, previously left hanging on the wall, was now crumpled in a corner. But there was no blood; not one drop.
She had injured it. She was sure of that. It had only escaped because it had not expected her to wield a blessed holy blade. But what creature would be affected by a holy blade other than a demon?
Allie grabbed her phone and sent a quick text: “I need Gabriel. 911.” If he didn’t answer, she had no way of getting in touch with him other than crossing over to the Alaxian plane.
It was three a.m. She wasn’t going back to sleep any time soon, but going outside rattled her. Whatever it was, it was not restricted to the first three floors, which meant she would not be safe in her apartment. Or anywhere else.
Pacing in the kitchen, she picked up her second bag of BBQ chips and opened them. She sat in her chair, staring out into the night as she ate. A glance at her phone told her no texts had come through. Where was Gabriel? She couldn’t just sit and do nothing, and sleep was not an option.
Making a quick decision, she threw open her window, leaning her head out, and looked down and then up. She had never looked up before. She slipped through the window into the fire escape and closed the window behind her. It wasn’t locked, but she didn’t think it made much difference. Climbing up the remaining four flights of stairs, she pulled herself onto the roof, then backed up and ran for the edge. She jumped, angling upwards, thinking, don’t fall! The sensation of falling up always unsettled her, but this was the only way for a mortal body to enter Alaxia.
The fall upwards increased in speed, and soon she was hurtling straight through the clouds. When the sound barrier broke, she passed through Earth’s plane of existence, and her speed decreased until she fell. The slow fall lasted much longer, but she landed lightly on the same roof she had departed.
To her, Alaxia looked like a brighter, cleaner version of Earth, but she knew it did not look like this to the angels and the souls who dwelled here. Its true splendor would only be revealed if she were deemed worthy at the end of her life.
“Gabriel!” she called. “Gabriel, It's Allie! Get down here!”
Safely in Alaxia, her shoulders loosened, releasing the tension she hadn’t known she was carrying.
If he was ignoring her because he thought she wanted to continue their conversation, she would be pissed. She opened her mouth, taking a breath to shout again.
“How can I help you, Allie?” Gabriel asked in his calm, melodic voice.
She spun to face him. In Alaxia, he was a much more splendid form of himself, although she knew this, too, was muted to her human eyes. She’d looked at him with her third eye once, but it was so blinding that she could see nothing with it for days after. He was handsome in this more brilliant form. He was handsome in any form. She crinkled her nose.
“Gabriel, someone, something, was in my apartment.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Humanoid, but not human; it had yellow eyes, and... my sword affected it.”
At this, Gabriel frowned. He stepped closer into her personal space.
“I... I don’t know what it was, but it was inhumanly fast when I cut it.”
“You cut it?” he interrupted. “With the sword? And what happened to it? Is it still in your apartment?” Urgency laced his words.
“No, it escaped out the window, but I’m sure I wounded it. But Gabriel, it didn’t bleed.”
If an angel could look shocked, that would have described Gabriel. His mouth slackened, and it took him a moment to recover.
“Allie, I will tell the others of this. Thank you for telling me.”
She waited before asking, “And? What do I do?” Gabriel stared at Allie for a long moment. As time stretched, she thought he may say nothing at all.
When he finally spoke, it was soft and tinged with something like regret.