No one ever thought it would be as gentle as a door sliding open. No one suspected the beginning of the end would go unnoticed.
Yesterday, Lee led a normal life. Today he is alone, lost and unable to remember anything but the pain.
Henry remembers too much. He holds recollections of what was, what should have been, what will remain forever lost.
They both want to save the world.
Together, they might destroy it. Show Less
Or a secretary.
“Mister Hale?” says the pretty redhead when Edmund fails to acknowledge our presence. “Mister Black is here, sir. For his appointment…”
Edmund lifts his eyes from the paper in his hands and makes a point of stamping a signature over the required line while studying us in silence.
“This will be all,” he says after a moment, smiling like a perfect gentleman. “Thank you for staying overtime today.”
“It wasn’t a problem, sir. If there’s anything else you need?”
“This will be all,” he repeats, the smile still in place. It’s a sterile thing that doesn’t reach his eyes and does nothing to soften his body language. “You may retire now.”
“Good night then, sir. See you tomorrow.”
Edmund moves to stand in front of the window bay while the young woman picks up her things. I join him and stare beyond my own reflection at the sprawling streets of Boston, teeming with life in spite of the late hour.
Watching the city, oblivious and drunk in its routine when I’m about to die, is harder than I thought it would be.
“You’ll be fine,” Edmund murmurs when the rumble of elevator doors closing in the distance reaches us.
“I know.” He wouldn’t have called me tonight if he had any doubt about my readiness. I know it’s time. I know what to expect. But—
“But you’re nervous regardless,” he says, catching my eye in the distorted reflection of the windowpane. “That’s fine too.”
His hand comes up to my shoulder, gives an encouraging squeeze, and I let out a laugh that sounds broken and breathless even to my own ears.
“Am I that obvious?”
“You were three minutes early for the appointment,” he says.
He waits a moment, a small kindness to let me collect myself, and then he leads the way out. We skip the elevators and take the fire stairs to go to the very top of the building. We’re twenty-two stories above the ground and up here the wind buffets us with a vengeance, chilling us to the bone.
Rather, chilling me. I don’t believe he cares one way or the other for the drop in temperature. Or for the even more brutal drop awaiting us if we lose our footing in the wet metal structure. I care about the cold and the fall, and about the way the fire stairs keep swaying and groaning.
It’s ironic, how worried I am about falling to my death when it’ll find me one way or the other.
It’s also disturbing, this second-guessing that comes with cold, intangible fingers sliding down my spine and a taste of fear. I made my choice and I will go through with it.
I keep climbing, and the white-knuckled hold I have on the railing is the only show of weakness I allow myself. It takes us a few minutes to reach the relative safety of the concrete rooftop, and I put them to good use, schooling my features and body language to resemble a blank slate: an emotionless mask just like Edmund’s.
I certainly hope my efforts are successful enough to hide my astonishment when I see the crowd waiting for us.
Well. Go figure. Five years of preparation and Edmund didn’t think to mention the audience once in all that time. He told me this wouldn’t be a private affair and that six of his brethren would perform the ritual with him, but the couple dozen people milling about and having no apparent role whatsoever are a surprise. A rather unpleasant one, if I’m honest. They look like sharks, sleek and elegant in their suits. Their polite smiles will turn razor sharp the moment they catch a whiff of weakness. If I were any other person, I would take them for lawyers, CEOs or some other species of corporate predator, but I’m unfortunate enough to know better.
Sometimes I swear the only value of truth is to make a task more difficult. A meeting of high-ranking executives who hold age, experience and planning over my head I can handle. A gathering of curious, somewhat amused demons gets under my skin.
They seem to note it. They seem to be even more amused by it.
I force my breaths to be even. Too deep or too fast will equally betray nerves and fear.
There’s movement toward the back of the crowd and my eyes latch onto it. Distraction from the scrutiny. Except the figure shrouded in shadows and occupying the only chair I can see in the rooftop does nothing to dissolve the tension crushing down my shoulders. I know who he is without being told, even though we have never been introduced. Patrick Bishop. Their leader. Or I should maybe say our leader now. Edmund whispers his name in reverence and while that is all I know of him, it is enough to give me a clear picture. After all, what sort of demon can earn the reverence of another demon?
Part of me would like to know. Part of me would like to stare at that darkened silhouette and to wrestle answers out of it. That’s probably the same part that brought me to this moment, that chose to understand creation no matter the price of knowledge.
The rest of me shrivels and hides, wanting to run, and ignoring Patrick Bishop’s presence is the only way I can think of to retain composure. My blank mask of resolve is good, but I’m only human.
Out of the corner of my eye I see Bishop making a discrete gesture and a path opens before me through the crowd. At the end of it, an ornate circle chalked over the concrete floor waits for me, lines and curves and gibberish that somehow are meant to become power.
I feel my mask slipping. My hands shake and I close my fists to still the tremor. I square my shoulders to fight the urge to curl into a ball. I lift my chin, because no matter how I despise the name, at the end of the day I’m a Black and we hold our heads high.
They see through it all. The truth is in their smiles and the tilt of their heads when I walk by them, but I make it to the center of the diagram and the jeers this moment of weakness should have brought never come. I force myself to meet their shark eyes and when I do I find curiosity and excitement and nervousness and pride and… is that hope?
They are monsters, every single one of them. Literal demons out of hell, and yet in their regard there’s more unyielding support than in any human I’ve ever known. It’s more than enough to erase any lingering doubts.
I nod at Edmund and he takes his place, closing the invoking design along with six more men. Beyond them, the public quietens and the thick silence envelops me, shutting out the ambient noises of Boston by night. It lasts a minute that lasts an hour, this pregnant silence, and then a low chant rises from the lips of the seven gentlemen around me.
Nobody ever warns you about the pain.
I scream. I think I scream. I know I try, again and again, but I don’t hear my own voice. I hear thundering beats, so fast that the sound rolls inside my head, like an avalanche.
And in the end, just like an avalanche, the pain catches up to me and drowns me.
It’s very late. The grey light of dawn is still hours away. Thunder rolls in the distance and I rub sleep from my eyes. I’m tired. The storm shouldn’t have woken me. Why did it—?
“Phillip,” I say. The single word is infused with all the long-suffering patience a five-year-old can muster.
“Sorry,” says the muffled voice of my brother. “I woke you?”
I don’t respond. Snarling a ‘yes!’ and sending him back to his room is a tempting option, but his question chokes him at the end and a suspicion worms its way under my skin. I toss the covers aside, crawl to the foot of my bed and peer down at him: a tiny bundle of ratty blanket topped by a mop of brown hair and eyes so huge I can see the whites of them. The light is very poor, but it doesn’t hide the drying tracks down his cheeks. He’s run out of tears already.
“How long have you been here?” I tug on his blanket and he hurries behind it, climbing onto the bed and rushing to cocoon in a corner.
He claims most of my pillow, holds on to it with all his strength and refuses to answer.
I know he hasn’t even been to his own bed.
Crawling back to my sleeping spot, I struggle to wrestle the covers around us both. Phillip doesn’t let go of his own blanket, but I make sure he’s tucked in right anyway. “You can sleep now,” I tell him. “I’ll make sure nothing bad happens.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeats. Then, after a pause: “Why’s it wrong?”
“It’s not,” I say, a bit too quickly.
“They don’t like it when I come here.” A new hint of fear creeps in his voice, less encompassing than his terror of storms but much more tangible.
“They won’t find out.” I don’t tell him he’s right. After all, he’s only three. “Sleep now. It’s safe.”
He nods, trusting, and by the time the next flash of lightning hits he’s already dreaming.
I keep vigil. I’ll wake him before our parents stir and they’ll find him in his room. I’ll make it safe.
The memory fades, swallowed by a maelstrom of darkness. I can’t feel my body—I’m far from awake yet and the echo of torment comes from a distant place. It ebbs and flows in a frantic pattern that might or might not be my thumping heart. I don’t know. I don’t know where I am. I’m not sure I even exist, but I try to pierce the black veil surrounding me nevertheless.
Frayed, broken wings cocoon me and I’m not alone.
They beat, once, and they span galaxies. I fall.
He’s falling. The distance is both infinite and inexistent, and he knows his essence will shatter when he hits bottom. His tattered wings open on instinct to lessen the impact, but they flop uselessly when once they would carry him across the void between the stars. He’s lost the power. It’s been wrenched from him, the very marrow of his bones left dry and brittle. He’s nothing but an ember where a bonfire used to burn and blaze. For the first time in his existence, he knows despair.
Anguish that shouldn’t be my own slams into my hollow chest and I weep. I sold my soul for knowledge, and now I know Hell. Memories that shouldn’t be my own recall every agonizing breath for the last eon, locked up in this empty place with nothing but bitterness and hopelessness. They burn through my mind, and as they do, my own recollections flash before my eyes.
I’m not alone and the creature trapped with me is as thirsty for understanding as myself. He takes everything and gives freely, a millennium of experience for every year of my own, and we’re not quite so lost.
Father drops the report after sparing it a glance.
“I’m afraid I’ll be out of town for your graduation day,” he says. It’s not unexpected, but hope is hard to quench. Still, fifteen years of practice hide any hint of disappointment.
“I understand.” As a perfect son should.
The phone rings at that moment and Father leaves in a rush. No further words are exchanged and I’m weary of trying. The creature within me echoes my sigh and we turn, craving fresh air to dissipate the stiffness of this place called home.
We open the study door and find Phillip. He’s as tall as I these days and his eyes harbor a storm under a furrowed brow.
“Eavesdropping?” we ask, forcing a small smile.
“You’re graduating?” He forces his way past and grabs the discarded report. “Are you for real?”
We lean against the doorway while he reads, expression softening into surprise. We wait.
“So not fair,” he says at last, his voice cracking. It does that a lot, his voice. Cracking at the worst possible moment to leave him blushing crimson and stuttering. Hopefully, when it settles, it’ll choose to do so in the pleasant timbre and not the screeching wail.
“My grades beg to differ,” we tell him.
He laughs, incredulous. “I see that. Bastard.” If only. “I wanted to go to High School together. Would’ve been fun, don’t you think?”
No, it wouldn’t be. In fact, we’re glad to avoid it. High School is not a gentle place when you’re different and it’s best if Phillip doesn’t learn the treatment an albino bookworm has to endure. We don’t tell him.
“Graduating top of your class at fifteen.” His embrace is familiar in its awkwardness. “Congrats!”
Then he steps back, puts his hand on our shoulder and holds our gaze. The storm is gone from his expression and clear blue is left behind.
“I’m proud of you,” he says. The words aren’t his and they sound foreign rolling past his lips. He says them anyway, because he knows father won’ t.
The memory spits me out and I cling to it, a sliver of warmth in this eternal emptiness of mine. It gives me a taste of belonging and holds the doubts at bay: I exist. I am. There’s something beyond Hell. Ages of confinement made me forget the world I once loved, but this little string of memories is like kindling to the dying ember I’ve become.
And I want to burn again, so very badly. I was the fire of the distant stars and I can be again.
I stretch out and feel for the limits of my prison. I know it by heart, for it is the only thing that’s kept me company for untold years, but this time I find something different when I push against the gates.
It’s only the tiniest crack and the edges pull and tear at my very core when I try to escape. My broken wings catch and rip. I struggle harder because I hear voices, drifting to me like spilled water in the desert. Somewhere, there are living beings, able to feel and think and communicate.
To not be alone…
I brace myself against the enclosing walls and the memories and heave with the desperation of someone who had given up hope.
And I slip through.
Henry. The name rings familiar and true. I am Henry. Henry Black.
My eyes snap open and a breath leaves me in a rush. Hovering above there’s a tanned face sporting angular features, dark hair cropped short and thin lips pressed in a tight line. The man is holding my shoulders, preventing me from trashing, and I get a most curious feeling when we lock gazes. I know him. I know him as a distant mentor and a trusted friend. I’ve seen him in an office and in the front lines of an unspeakable battle against God. I’ve known him for the past five years and I knew him millennia ago. We rebelled together, we fought together and we’ve found each other again.
He watches me, weary.
“Edmund, I’m quite awake now. You can stop crushing me to the ground,” I tell him. My voice is hoarse from screaming and I hurt all over, but the little nuisances are delightful after eons of nothing. I can’t help it. I grin and the corner of his mouth quirks up in response.
“Welcome back.” Tension I hadn’t seen before leaves his shoulders and he helps me up. It takes more tries than I’m willing to admit, but in the end I stand on my own.
I look beyond Edmund and find smiling, satisfied expressions. I can’t put a name to their new faces, but I recognize who dwells in every single one of them—brothers and sisters, breaking out in impromptu cheering after too long apart. It feels like home and yet it looks nothing like the world I left when I was imprisoned.
I remember the huge blaze of creation, and I recall being torn from it after the fall. But that glorious pyre was never extinguished: its smoldering remains carried me on through the war in Heaven. Now, it’s gone. There’s only cold ashes left and the realization makes me pull back from the reunion, seek out where the source of fire is hiding. It must be somewhere, because without it we are powerless.
“You are looking too high,” says a voice. It’s the first time I hear its rasping tones, but I recognize it anyway. I heard it too many times in the past, rallying us to beat the odds in impossible battles. When I turn to him, there’s a slight bow in my head and he rewards me with an indulgent smile that doesn’t sit quite right with the old, fragile body he wears.
Catching my eye, he points down and I feel them.
Candles. A few dozen candles, flickering weakly in the night, held close to the mortal hearts that feed them for fear they might go out.
“So little is left.”
“And this is the result of much tending to,” he says. “I hope you’ll understand our tardiness in freeing you, but we couldn’t speed the process.”
His words hit me like a physical blow, but my outward expression is impassible as I follow along the implications of such a statement.
“How long have you been free?” I ask.
The heavenly general hiding as Patrick Bishop offers me a sympathetic look.
“Centuries,” he says. “Centuries of loneliness while I waited for mankind to grow so I could begin freeing my brothers and sisters. For centuries, their number was too few and even now they mock me: they are in the millions, but only a fraction of them holds the divine flame. We’re working in order, freeing our people one at a time when the resources allow us. Any faster and there wouldn’t be enough fire for all of us.” He leans forward in his chair, his eyes boring into me. “Do you understand? There must be a balance.”
In other words, remain powerless. In other words, take what you give me without complains. In other words, this world is so broken that what should be inherent to mankind is a precious commodity, and you decide who spends centuries in Hell so you don’t have to share.
I smile at him, a tiny gesture that doesn’t reach my eyes and does nothing to relax my body language.
“I understand,” I say. “I swear I will not upset the balance.”
Before dismissing the gathering, he searches my expression for a long moment, perhaps seeking dishonesty. He finds none, because I told him the truth.
I will not upset the balance. I intend to reset the scales.