Wiping the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand, Serena swept away the stray silver hairs that clung to her forehead. She bandaged and healed yet another of her kin, whispering the healing incantations softly, drawing from her internal well of power, her prana, to knit the man’s flesh together.
The stench of blood and suffering lingered in the room long after he left, mirrored by the drain she felt in her own prana. The echo of her patients’ injuries were like phantoms gnawing at the edges of her mind. She cleared her workstation while awaiting the next injured person to be carried in from the field. It helped clear her mind from the bitter aftereffect of healing—a long-kept secret by those who shared the gift.
The room was oddly empty and quiet, the other healers having already left, leaving only herself to tend the wounded as the late evening approached the quieter hours of the night.
The last battle had taken a heavy toll on her people. Ever since the Time of Chaos, the celestials had warred with the demons from the Lower Planes. The Borderlands had been a place of constant war between the two groups. Her people spilling their blood to keep the Tri-realms safe from the corruption and strife which followed the demons wherever they conquered.
“How are you holding up?” came the familiar voice of her brother, Gabriel.
Smiling, she looked up at him as he entered the infirmary. He wore his full plate armor, the intricate gold and silver designs scarcely visible through the stains of red and black blood.
“Better than most. How about you?” She frowned, taking in his flushed face.
As battle commander, Gabriel rarely visited the infirmary. She glanced over her brother with concern. Turning ever so slightly, he revealed the large wound that stretched across his forearm. He held it cradled against his chest to stop the flow of blood, though she could still see it seeping through his fingers.
Sighing, she took his arm from his tight grasp into her hands. Ignoring his grimace as he flinched, she went to work healing the wound, reaching out with her prana, covering the wound, willing it to close, to mend. She hid her wince as the memory of the pain flashed through her mind.
A blade slicing through. A flash. Wet heat. Waves of pain and nausea filled her body as she experienced the wound anew.
While she worked, he told her of the most recent battle, probably as much to distract himself from the pain as anything else.
“All is quiet. They seem to have withdrawn for now. We successfully banished most of them back to their home plane. Even their commanders.”
Serena nodded. Killing the more powerful demons in the Borderlands rarely meant they stayed dead for long. Most of their souls were simply reincarnated in the Lower Planes in another fully grown adult body, complete with all their memories and knowledge gained during life.
Long ago, the demon lords had learned how to bond their souls to a singular Soulstone through blood rituals and sacrifice, granting them eternal life.
Once reborn, they were often stronger than before their deaths. The only way to truly kill a demon lord was to destroy their Soulstones at the same time as their mortal bodies. Or at least that was what she was taught. Unfortunately, Soulstones could be any precious or semi-precious stone and were easily hidden as mundane objects. Only the Elders and a few gifted of their kind could distinguish a Soulstone from a regular stone.
Thankfully, there weren’t many demon lords, mostly the grunts and occasionally the more powerful demon princes who acted as commanders. Yet, some feared that even the lower-ranked demons could learn the secrets of the Soulstones and become immortal—unlike the celestials.
No, her kind died permanent physical deaths, their souls reborn in the Sea of Stars with no memory of their lives as a celestial. While reincarnation was possible, the many lives of their Mauri—their true selves beyond death—were unknown, and very few beings could trace the journey of a soul through its many lifetimes.
Thankfully, the demon lords were selfish in their power, and the secret of the Soulstones was kept from the lesser demon races for fear of being overthrown by their own kind.
If only her kind could resurrect as easily as the mortal races. But with the gift of eternal life free from disease and aging, came the curse of a single life.
“You should conserve your prana,” he noted with a stiff smile, nodding his thanks as she withdrew her fingers from his arm.
“I try,” she smiled weakly. Her prana, the life-force present in all living beings and the source of her healing power, was running low. Something only Gabriel could ever detect. He often saw more than she wanted him to see.
She tried to hide her dimming prana from those who came to her for healing, not wanting to worry her patients more than necessary. However, Gabriel had the gift of seeing a being’s Mauri. The true essence of the soul: chi, prana, and anima.
She usually reserved her healing power for only the most severe and life-threatening injuries, resorting to more conventional means of healing in most cases. But this was her brother. She couldn’t just leave him wounded so gravely.
“I think we are winning,” he said after a few silent moments of studying her. “Soon we’ll be able to go back home. If things keep at this pace, we should have this area secured within a few moon-cycles.”
Home. It had been ten solar cycles since they had been back to the Astral Plane.
All celestials—Angels, Seraphim, Devas, and the rest—were required to serve a decade-long tenure as a part of the ongoing defense in the Borderlands where the rifts between the Lower Planes and Tri-realms were thinnest.
The planar gates—their means of inter-planar travel and gateways into the Upper Planes—were also more concentrated here than in the other realms. Remnants from before the Time of Chaos, and a burden to the living celestials who guarded them.
Since they were eternal beings, they served ten cycles of every hundred. Over the course of the life of an eternal being, it wasn’t much, yet it had always felt like the longest cycles of her life.
Being immersed in imminent danger, surrounded by violence and death day in and day out, had its cost. Not to mention they weren’t immortal nor invulnerable. They died, and they bled like any of the other sentient beings that inhabited the realms, despite their naturally long lives.
Their numbers were dwindling, while the demons weren’t as affected by the Eternal War in the slightest.
Smiling up at her brother, she patted his healed arm gently where the wound had been mere moments before. She was proud of her work, and she was one of the few healers they had. Each angel had their own gifts. Hers was healing and the gift of life.
“Perhaps I’ll join the patrol this evening if things stay quiet? This room is getting pretty stuffy, and I could use the exercise.”
Gabriel studied her for a moment. She knew he liked to keep her away from most of the fighting. But like most young angels, she craved action. They weren’t made to sit in a tent all day, and he understood that about her more than anyone else.
“Very well,” he agreed.
Her heart skipped a beat. She had been cooped up in this tent for days.
“But only because the threat isn’t as big as it has been over the past few days, and we have already secured this area for now.”
His gaze swept from her head to her toes as he frowned. “Your anima is low. The fresh air will do you good.”
Beaming, she clasped his hands in gratitude. “Thank you!”
“Finish up in here, then get some rest. You can join Elenhar’s patrol tonight.”
Hugging him, she quickly went about cleaning her work area before he changed his mind.
Shaking his head, he left her to her duties.
An opening in the forest canopy revealed the multi-colored cosmos in the night sky above. Thin beams of moonlight filtered through the rustling leaves, sending rays of twinkling dust toward the soft earth below, lighting up the ferns and smaller plants on the forest floor.
The scent of fresh spring filled the air as rare and exotic night flowers opened their petals for the night, soaking up the magic of the stars. In the distance, Serena could hear the soft muted sounds of their war camp as the celestials settled in for the night and spoke in hushed whispers. Their voices, almost musical, blending harmoniously with the night sounds of the surrounding forest.
A smile played on her lips as she made her way deeper into the dense trees, away from the stuffy camp where responsibility weighed heavily on her shoulders. The patrol proved uneventful, so she risked sneaking out to steal a few moments alone under the blinking stars.
Dry leaves crunched silently under her booted feet as she started humming. All around her, the night felt alive in its waking darkness.
Hidden behind the dense foliage and intense shadows, he watched the lone angel wander the outskirts of their main encampment. His hand rested comfortably on the hilt of his sword as he watched her move silently past him, humming a hauntingly beautiful melody.
The opportunity to deal a swift killing blow came and went, making him frown in confusion. Akmenos wasn’t afraid. He was a demon prince. An elite assassin. Trained to kill since he could walk on two legs, he had ended many lives in his long life. He watched the female walk deeper into the trees, away from her people, and safety.
Berating himself, he followed her as silent as Death itself, caught in her haunting melody and beauty. Studying her more closely, he smiled to himself, pleased by her alluring curves and the gentle sway of her hips, which were accented by her fitted leathers that hugged her body like a second skin. The glint of her ornate golden corset drew his eyes toward her ample hips, the garment glowing faintly with enchantment.
Her silver hair shone like the moonlight above. She wore some of it pulled back in a multitude of complex braids at the top of her head, then tumbling in luscious curls to her shoulder blades—a simplified style of the pompous celestial nobles. Her large white wings glided gracefully behind her, catching the flicker of moonlight through the foliage as she made her way further away from the camp and safety.
Licking his lips absently, he stared lustfully at the female as she bent to pick some herbs every few steps. With a single sweep, he had picked out every weakness in her outfit, even noticing her lack of weapons with surprise—only a small, intricate dagger at her hip. In his mind he already killed her a hundred different times—many excruciating—that befitted his standing as a Dreadmask. Yet he remained hidden—watching and observing her—an invisible force staying his hand.
Smiling, he watched her full lips curve up at the corners when she spotted a rare Moonflower, rumored to possess magical healing properties. Kneeling beside the plant, she gently cut the stem with her dagger—no larger than her delicate fingers—before gently placing the apparent treasure in her basket.
Then, looking straight at him, she stood up—her smile never leaving that beautiful face.
She should not have been able to see him through the magical darkness nor the layers of invisibility spells he had used to cloak himself. Yet there she stood, a pillar of beauty with eyes that pierced him to the core. Passion stirred within him as their eyes locked, and he held his breath.
“I know you are there,” she whispered, her smile not faltering, even as her heart thundered loudly in her chest.
I should sound the alarm. I shouldn’t be here. Gabriel will skin my hide if I make it out of here alive, knowing I disobeyed his orders to stay with the patrol.
She pictured the bright magical pillar of light she should be sending into the heavens to summon her kin to her aid and frowned at the intrusion it would cause upon her pleasant night thus far.
She waited for her watcher to reveal themselves, her curiosity stronger than common sense. She could feel their magic in the air, a cold darkness that permeated the forest. Though not as unwelcome—or dangerous—as she expected a demon’s magic to be. More like a cool winter’s night when the sun barely brushed over the horizon during the long dark. Though her eyes only saw the quiet forest surrounding her.
Having quietly sent out her magic to detect evil—and finding none—she was immensely curious about her silent stalker.
“You’ve had plenty of chances to kill me,” she stated boldly, resting her hand on her hip and staring confidently toward the darkness where she sensed the presence.
She was unarmed, yet not defenseless. Several prepared spells sat at the tip of her tongue, ready to be cast with only a thought or word. Her divine blood lent her its own power, as did the runed jewels she wore. Yet she waited, her breathing calm, even as her heart raced.
Damn her. His own flesh betrayed him.
She shouldn’t have been able to have this effect on him, and his reaction to her was an unwelcome risk. Centuries of training to overcome temptation seemed of little use at this moment. Not even the call of the harpies or succubi had this profound of an effect on him.
In this moment, he was willing to forsake all the torture and training he had endured to resist temptation for a single chance to touch her smooth skin, to inhale her scent, to taste her lips and run his hands through those silky silver strands as hers raked his bare back.
It wasn’t like she was the first angel he had ever seen. He had killed many like her, yet none had made his body react so treacherously, so salaciously.
Keeping his poison-tipped dagger and sword sheathed, he stepped out of the darkness to boldly face this siren that called to his flesh, keeping his eyes locked on hers. He could always kill her later, he reasoned with a dauntless smile. Yet in his heart he knew that for the lie it was.
She swallowed as a dark, mysterious demon stepped from the shadows. He wore black, form-fitting leather armor, similar to her own patrol armor. His skin, the color of midnight. Striking blue eyes glimmered against his dark complexion as he looked hungrily down at her.
Her heart fluttered erratically in her chest as she examined him further. Black hair was pulled into a high bun atop his head, revealing two large, curved horns curling from his temples. Two leathery black wings were tucked against his back, the moonlight reflecting off their smooth surface like oil on water.
An amused smile played on his thin lips as he regarded her with a boldness and curiosity reflecting her own, his eyes caressing her openly with a lustful gaze.
“Have you come to kill me?” she asked, surprised by the undeniable beauty the demon possessed—and her visceral reaction to him. She couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to explore his naked body with her hands, to make love to him.
“Not you specifically,” he admitted, “though I was ordered to kill as many of the high-ranking celestials as the night allowed…” His voice trailed contemplatively.
“I see.” Serena placed her basket carefully at her feet without taking her eyes from the beautiful man in front of her.
“My magic surrounds us, yet I do not sense any evil in you—why is that?” she asked, genuinely curious. Usually, she didn’t require active use of her magic to sense a being’s soul alignment, or chi, as only the most powerful beings could shield their true nature, and very few could shield it from her magic directly.
“I am a prince of the Abyss. Evil flows in me as surely as the black blood that sustains me.”
Cocking her head slightly, she studied him and his strangely defensive tone.
“I don’t think you are evil,” she stated, tapping her lips contemplatively with a slender finger, an act which seemed to make his frown deepen and make him shift uncomfortably under her scrutiny.
“I think,” she mused, “you are a survivor, born into a world saturated with evil. If given a choice, I have no doubt that you would find yourself neutral, if not wholly good.”
Taking a tentative step toward him, she flashed her most disarming smile, trusting that her instincts were true.
He stared down at the female in front of him, her smile piercing him to the core. Those lips… He shook his head. Her words had struck a chord of truth, and he hated her for it. In the Lower Planes, goodness was a weakness, and weakness was exploited, dominated, and controlled. He’d spent his entire life doing what he must in order to survive in service to his father, one of the ruling demon lords.
Taking a step toward her, he saw her pulse jump in her throat, though she stood her ground, staring defiantly—invitingly—up at him. Either she was too stupid to be scared, or she was more powerful than she seemed. He didn’t think it was the first. Most creatures trembled when they came this close to him, whether instinctively or because they felt the sting of his poisoned dagger in their back; all backed down eventually. But here she was, her eyes unreadable, fearless.
“What is your name?” he asked, taking another slow, deliberate step toward her.
“Serena.” He tasted the name on his lips. It felt good to say it aloud.
“And why are you out here by yourself, Serena?”
“I sought some solitude and quiet,” she smiled mischievously up at him, a glimmer in her eyes.
Licking her lips, she angled her head slightly to the left and locked her eyes with his. He swallowed, his body responding to the small movement as she crossed her arms, her hip pressing alluringly to the side as she tapped her lower lip thoughtfully.
“You haven’t killed me yet; does this mean we can just relax and have a civil conversation? Or do I need to call for help?” she smirked, placing her hand on her hips as her magic swirled warmly around him.
He raised an amused brow at her direct challenge and forthrightness.
“I have no desire to kill you.” The treasonous words escaped, surprising him at their truth and sincerity.
Her smile broadened, and his heart leaped into his throat as she visibly relaxed.
“Good. I have no desire to sound the alarm and disturb my peace. After all, I just found such a rare flower.” She winked conspiratorially.
A teasing smile crossed her face as she stepped closer, extending her hand tentatively toward him. His breath came heavier with each step.
Taking her offered hand, he stared down at her in confusion. Her skin was hot, so hot that his heart beat wildly against his chest.
“I’ve never seen a demon prince,” she admitted, stepping even closer. Her voice a husky whisper caressing his senses. Her body close enough that he could feel her heat through her clothes. She smelled of Moonflowers and jasmine, and her arousal sent waves of heat through his body.
Reaching for her face, he gently raised her chin toward his, surprised to find a lustful gaze in her eyes.
“What is your name?” she whispered; her body now flush with his as he inhaled sharply through his teeth.
“Akmenos,” he whispered hoarsely, trying to swallow the knot in his throat.
Was she attempting to backstab him when he least expected it? He inhaled slowly, trying to calm himself.
That was the way with a succubus and other demons—but she was no demon—she was his mortal enemy. A being of light and goodness.
Reaching a tentative hand up, she stroked his horns, the gentle touch sending a shiver through his body, arousing him to where he wanted to claim her without thought for the consequences.
Taking a step away from him, she coyly bit her lip and fluttered her lashes as she stared amorously up at him.
“I’m sorry—I’ve never been this forward before…”
A blush deepened her porcelain skin in the moonlight. He had to have her. There was no hatred, no malice or hostility—only pure, unadulterated lust and attraction.
“I am told I have this effect on women,” he teased with a mischievous wink, which only made her scowl at him.
“Is that so?” Her brows drew together as she tilted her head in thoughtful contemplation, her eyes roving licentiously up and down his body.
Laughing, he stood taller, letting her look her fill.
She chewed on her bottom lip as she stared at him, unwilling to pull away for even a second. Her body responded to his presence as it had never done to another in all her nine centuries of life. While still young by celestial standards, she had had her share of lovers, yet none had called to her body as primally as she felt drawn to Akmenos.
His scent was tantalizing, and his masculinity calling to her senses—to be touched and explored at her leisure.
There was something familiar about him, something she could not explain, but that called to her like a moth to a flame. It was as if her Mauri recognized him on a deeper level than even she could fathom, a recognition that went far beyond the mere moments they had stood there under the star-filled night.
In a single motion, he stepped against her, taking her face in both hands, the warmth of his breath fanning over her. His lips close enough she could almost taste the moisture on them as her eyes locked on his, drinking in their dark, mysterious depths.
He hung there, suspended in motion, waiting for her as her heart pounded against her breast, threatening to break free from her chest.
Divine, save me. How can something so wrong feel so right?
Her eyes searched his, drowning in them. She knew she should step away, leave, and be thankful she lived. Yet she was his for the taking, his captive in every sense of the word. She wanted to be nowhere else, with no one else. She wanted him. Here. Now.
Closing her eyes, she lifted onto her toes, closing the distance between their lips.
His taste was intoxicating, delicious, sensual. The kiss was hard and passionate as he pulled her body tight against him, his hands finding their way around her waist and head.
“Lay with me?” he murmured hoarsely, pulling away far enough to look into her face.
Surprised at the request, she frowned briefly.
From all reports, demons didn’t ask—they took. They raped and murdered without thought for consequences, driven by lust and conquest. Yet she felt the urgency, the raw vulnerability in the request.
“Yes,” she answered breathlessly, her hands unfastening the straps of his dark armor as her mouth found his throat, kissing the strong pulse in his neck as he lifted her, pressing her back against a tree as her hands explored every swell of muscle as the leather shirt fell to the ground.
He didn’t know why he had asked her—she was practically calling his body to hers, her scent of arousal wild and intoxicating. Yet it seemed important to him that this was what she really wanted, that it was consensual and not taken by force.
He knew he was physically stronger than her and could take what he wanted, regardless of her answer. Yet in his heart he knew he wouldn’t, that he wanted—needed—her to want this as badly as he did.
One word—yes—sent his heart leaping, and everything happened at once.
He pulled her close. Wrapped her up in a kiss, one hand unfastening that golden corset then pulling at those skin-tight leggings. As their clothes fell to the ground, he took a step back to look at her naked body, drinking in her beauty and femininity.
Likewise, he could feel her gaze brushing over him like a cool winter breeze, studying him. She smiled devilishly as she licked her swollen lips.
His pulse pounded in anticipation.
She was the most beautiful, the most divine, most glorious sight he had ever laid his eyes on, and that said a lot. His home world was filled with temptations and primal lusts that could drive anyone mad, yet none compared to the sight of her bare skin in the moonlight under the multi-colored cosmos.
Her pulse raced as she looked at his sculpted, naked body. He was made of midnight and darkness. Scars marred his perfectly developed muscles. Divine only knew what had caused them. Yet he stood there, confident, magnificent, and as perfectly beautiful as the night itself.
Unlike the demons she had often fought, he radiated power and danger. But instead of putting her on alert, it excited her and called to her soul. In his eyes, she saw his soul reflected at her, bright and familiar. A recognition that transcended space and time filled her heart with warmth.
Taking a step toward her, he pulled her against him, once again. This time, their skin pressed together, and her every nerve flared to life.
In a dance as ancient as life itself, they made love as he pushed her against the tree, the rough bark scraping against her exposed back and wings with every thrust.
She burned with life as he filled her. And with an uncontrollable shudder, they finished together. She knew it the moment his seed filled her, and she laughed as he bent over to kiss her, his mouth unwilling to release her from the moment of ecstasy they shared.
“Have you cast a spell on me, my Angel of Desire?” he whispered huskily against her lips, his strong arms holding her firmly against him, unwilling to let her go.
“Akmenos," she murmured lovingly, her hand gently running over his horns, “the stars have brought us together, the Divine themselves have blessed this night.”
Chills ran down his spine as she spoke his name.
He stared into the silver depths of her eyes and held her tight.
But a vision had assaulted him as he had released into her. A vision of life—and death—his death. Yet he was calm, satisfied, and filled with a warmth unlike any he had ever experienced. He understood its inevitability and accepted his fate.
For a brief moment in his damned life, he was pulled into the radiance of this fem—woman and the light that shone from within her. He knew that this meeting had been ordained by the goddess herself. Even if it meant eternal damnation or oblivion, he could die knowing he had fulfilled his purpose. And that he had this moment forever etched on his soul.
She was smiling up into his eyes, when his face contorted in a scream, the sound sending a flock of nearby night birds screeching into the sky.
Looking down in horror, she saw the radiant light of a divine blade flaring blindingly bright in the dark night as it pierced his heart and stopped just short of touching her own breast.
A scream shook through her as Akmenos sank to his knees, grasping his chest where the blade had disappeared as the assailant withdrew it from his body.
Falling in front of him, she desperately reached for the wound, pressing against it to staunch the flow of black blood that the blade, a demon-killer, had left. It was one of their most revered and powerful tools against the most powerful demons, and he would have no chance if she didn’t try to save him.
Her power flared brightly, burning hot against her palms as she pressed it against him in dread.
His flesh curled and sizzled under the bright light. “No!” she shrieked in panic, yanking her hand back from where red-hot blisters had formed instead of the wound closing. Hysterical tears streamed down her face.
He weakly took her hands and pressed them against his gaping chest. He smiled tenderly into her eyes, a look of peace and contentment on his ashen face.
His shaky hand reached for her cheek, but fell short. Her tears ran down her cheeks like torn tatters of what could have been.
“Love her for me…” His words faded as he collapsed against her.
An unearthly scream of despair and sorrow shook through her body as his lifeblood flowed over her. Her soul ripped in two.
She continued to wail as Akmenos’s body faded and disappeared in a wisp of black smoke, dissolving between her arms.
The only evidence of his existence was the dark blood that covered her body where she had cradled him.
Gabriel looked down in shock at his sister, black blood dripping off his radiant sword as he just stood there, unable to move. He had come searching for her when she hadn’t returned to camp with the rest of her patrol, fearing the worst. And when he had seen the demon with his sister, he was filled with righteous fury, thinking she was being raped.
She kneeled, hunched over, rocking herself in soul-deep grief.
Uncertain of what to do, he studied the surroundings, noticing for the first time the lack of signs of a struggle. Their clothes lay discarded, but intact, near the tree where he had found them. He frowned. All signs pointed to it being a consensual act.
Blood drained from his face as the realization dawned on him.
Serena! With a demon! How? Why? Was she charmed? Or was this an act of open treason? She wouldn’t be the first celestial to fall from Grace and embrace the darkness of their kind…
Bombarded with guilt and confusion, he watched her cry and kneeled beside her, placing his hand comfortingly on her back as he tried to pull her close.
“Don’t touch me!” she shrieked, her entire body shaking from the sobs as she pulled away from him.
“Serena…” he stared at her in disbelief as she curled herself into a ball, wrapping her wings protectively around herself as large tears streamed down her face. Her sobs echoed in the silent forest around them.
She’s recoiling from me! But I’m her brother! We’ve protected each other for centuries. How could this happen? When did she start embracing a demon and forsake her own kind—forsake me?
Pushing his dark thoughts away, he sent his magic to probe for hers. Her chi was diminished but still radiant and light. So why does she recoil from me? Can’t she tell I was saving her?
“Serena, little one, I am sorry,” he said softly. “I had thought you were in trouble, I only tried to save you.”
She looked up at him with red-rimmed, tear-streaked eyes, a deep sadness engraved into her expression.
Pulling his cloak off his shoulders, he draped it carefully over her shoulders.
“He wasn’t evil,” she whispered, letting the cloak hang limply around her shoulders as another sob wracked her body. Glancing down toward the black blood beneath her, she reached down to where Akmenos’s body once lay.
A pure Moonstone pulsed with life on the forest floor.
Gabriel watched as her fingers wrapped tenderly around it, picking up the stone and holding it tightly against her breast. He could sense the power in it but was surprised that it felt pure—not malevolent as he expected. He had seen Soulstones only a handful of times in the millennia he had lived, but he knew that this was one of them.
Placing his hand over Serena’s where she held the stone, he kneeled in front of her, taking her hands between his own.
“I swear I will do anything to make up for my mistake… I didn’t realize… Serena, I am bound to you, as this Soulstone is bound to you, for my horrible transgression and mistake in taking his life. I… I thought I was… saving you.”
She looked up at her older brother with surprise. He was a hardened warrior, ready to act as the Divine demanded without question. He never broke the rules. His actions were always lawful to the T. Taking the life of an innocent—even as an accident—was against their laws, and that he would admit it and bind himself to her service was no small order.
A demon would not inherently qualify under this law, their actions often damning them, and this was a time of war. No one would question his actions if it came under scrutiny, especially since Akmenos himself had admitted to being sent to assassinate their leaders.
But Gabriel had done the unthinkable. By admitting he had killed an innocent, he had judged himself by their laws. To atone, he was binding himself to her and would do as she asked, even if it meant breaking more laws.
Closing her eyes, she felt the pulse of the crystal against her breast. Could she, in good conscience, bind her brother to her service with a soul-debt? Turning the Moonstone in her hand, she recalled Akmenos’s last words. He hadn’t been binding himself to her, she realized in awe.
“There will be a child, a girl…” she finally said, her heart beating against her chest at the damning words she was about to speak, watching her brother’s composed expression. “For your atonement, I ask that you protect her and shield her from our people.”
“Serena. You know as well as I, that Infernals are not allowed to live! The Elders will never allow a half-breed celestial to survive, and they will execute you if they find out. Do not ask me to condemn you as I have the father.”
“I know what I ask, but this child is different. I had a vision—a gift from the Divine. She must live.” Her voice was harsh as she stared pleadingly at her brother.
“Please, Gabriel, promise me you will help me protect her. I cannot do it alone. I need you. I will ask nothing else of you. But you will help me give her a chance at life. A chance to make her own way in the world. Shield her from the Elders long enough that I may claim the right to life for her.” With every word, her resolve strengthened.
“They will execute you, or worse, if they find out, even if she lives. Serena, what you ask of me, to choose between your life and the life of your child… I can’t.”
“It’s not your choice to make,” she said flatly. “I have chosen my fate. Now I need you to honor your soul-debt by accepting it and helping me.” It was done. She had done it.
He watched his sister for long, silent breaths, his gaze dropping to her belly where life would grow and back up at her eyes where the moons reflected in their bright silver depths. He loved her more than anything in the world and hated the position he was in, having to choose between her life and that of the unborn child.
He swallowed the growing lump in his throat. “Very well. I promise to help you protect her. But once she is old enough to not need you physically, you must send her to Pandora or Pyxis. The Tri-realms will be the safest for her, and perhaps the Elders will not discover her there as she grows up. Divine knows they rarely turn their gazes toward the mortal realms these days. I do not wish to see you stand in front of the Elder’s council awaiting your death sentence. You know the laws on Infernals… and I cannot bear to lose my sister.”
Wrapping her in his arms, he held on to her as she sagged gratefully against him, clutching the Moonstone ever tighter against her breast. Silent tears ran down her cheeks as she sank into him.
Holding her close, he offered her what strength he could.
“She can’t stay there forever though,” he added thoughtfully, frowning as he played the different scenarios in his mind. As a child, the Elders posed the greatest threat to her survival; as an adult, her father’s kind would pose the greatest threat to both the child and all the realms.
He steeled himself for the reality that was to come. “Yes, once she is old enough to face the Elders, she would need to return to us. She can plead for her life in front of the council. If she doesn’t return to the Astral Plane, we risk the entire multiverse’s safety should the demons discover an Infernal had been born to one of us. It would be what the Elders fear the most. An Infernal in the hands of our enemy—she would be our downfall. At least as an adult, she would be given a chance to prove her worth to our kind, and we can beg for your life at the same time. It is the only way this can work.”
She nodded, gripping him tightly, her eyes wide with fear as she considered the future. Gabriel was right. For them both to survive this, she would have to send her daughter away so that she could grow up away from the Elders’ gaze. Away from the Astral Plane—away from her. But as an Infernal she would be powerful, and eventually that alone would attract the attention of both the celestials and the demons. She would need to return home to be properly trained, or all of this would be for nothing.
It was this hope of being reunited with her daughter that gave her the strength to look up at him with determination once more.
“It was the will of the Starsong,” she whispered as he helped her stand.
“I know,” he said, putting his hand over her abdomen, and sending a divine blessing into her body; the warmth of his prayer filling her.
“We need to return to camp before they send out a search party. You need to get dressed.”
Bowing, Serena picked up her clothes and got dressed as Gabriel turned to give her privacy and to study the black leather armor.
“This is well made—magical—who was this demon?”
Stroking her fingers reverently over the soft leathers, she smiled, remembering the man who once was.
“Akmenos, a prince of the Abyss, and Dreadmask assassin.”
Cocking a brow, Gabriel studied her curiously.
“He was sent to assassinate as many high-ranking officials as the night allowed,” she gave him a wry smile as she came to stand beside him.
“I see. Perhaps your unorthodox act of passion just might have saved some lives this night.” He smiled tenderly at her. “I just wish it didn’t mean you would be persecuted if anyone found out. You know our laws are harsh and absolute. We have a responsibility as one of the most powerful descendants of the Aêwhè to do what is right and uphold our laws. It is why the Elders keep a tight leash on us to prevent any of us straying into corruption or darkness. There can’t be another Time of Chaos.”
“I know. But I can’t help but think that they are wrong in this. How can all demons be evil? We know that our own kind can fall, does that not then mean that there are some of their kind who can be good? We are wrong to condemn them all simply for being born as what they are. All life is sacred. Why not theirs?”
“You know why. We have fought with them for millennia—eons. One doesn’t simply lay aside that kind of hatred overnight. Many of our kind, our family, our friends, died because of their kind.”
“Yet has anyone ever considered that this war is wrong and unnecessary? That maybe there is another way? That we can start to change the world if only we were more accepting of those who are different from us? Akmenos was different; there must be others!”
“You would not be the first to think that. And I hope for your sake—and your child’s—that the Elders will find compassion and forgiveness in their hearts. Maybe you will be the stone which starts the ripple of change among our kind. Believe me, there is nothing in this universe I want more than to see this war come to an end.”
“I know.” She sighed heavily, the horrors and pain of all those she healed echoing through her mind.
“Come, let’s get you to camp and cleaned up.” He gave her a reassuring smile. It didn’t help, but at least he was trying.
“Let me do the talking.”
Nodding her agreement, she followed him toward the camp, placing the precious Moonstone in the basket next to the Moonflower.