Chapter 9.

"At Least It's Not Death Metal."

I – 'Memento mori.'

So, here I am, sword in hand and facing the Grim Reaper himself, the very same man—well, being—that gave me life, ironically, but all I can think about is his appearance. With the black-and-silver, skull-and-bones battle armor and black hooded cape he is wearing, does he looks more like Skeletor from Masters of the Universe or Victor von Frickin' Doom?

My mind works in weird ways when I'm scared shitless.

There's a rustle of movement from the gathered rows of angels and demons in the Hall of Judgement and, even though I don't turn my eyes away from the impressive figure of Azrael, I can hear several shocked gasps and various versions of "How does he dare?" and "Blasphemy!" coming off them.

Whatever, this is between my father and me.

I stay as cool as I can, sword bared but pointing down at my side, and eyes fixed on Azrael's. I do my best not to shake like a leaf.

The Angel of Death jumps off his stage and lands right in front of me with a ponderous quake as his boots hit the ground. He makes it look easy and smooth, but the whole hall still trembles as he lands.

"Silence, dogs!" he roars, slamming on the floor with his war scythe again. Angels and demons alike are rendered mute by the anger in his thundering voice. He turns to me, his calm and quiet demeanor contrasting his previous anger, and says, "You better choose your next words carefully, Nicholas."

I lick my lips nervously. I tell myself I can do this, find the proper words and the right attitude. Dammit, having read all the Dragonlance books—even the very bad ones—should benefit me somehow.

I drop to a knee in front of my father, lower my head in servitude, and extend my wings as far as they go but with their tips touching down on the ground. I raise my sword, one hand on the grip and the other on the azure-glowing blade, and offer it over my downcast head.

"My Lord Death, I, uh, humbly come to you on this day, seeking clemency for my past transgressions against this land, its people, and you, its ruler," I declare, trying to be as loud and sound as sincere as I can. "I shall accept any penitence you deem necessary to place upon me, without protest or refusal. If it's my life that I should forfeit to gain your forgiveness, so be it."

Yeah, I know, sounds kind of extreme, doesn't it? Well, as huge a gamble as I seem to be making here, I'm actually stacking the odds in my favor. In the world of angels and demons, appearances are almost as important as actions themselves. If I offered Azrael something of lesser value in exchange for his forgiveness and help, it would be very well within his right to simply refuse me and send me on my way with nothing but a tender rear and a lot of wasted time. But by offering him my head, I'm actually forcing his hand to either take it, or to forgive me. Any other option would make him look indecisive, and if there's something that Death cannot be, it's doubtful.

So, now I'm placing my chips on him not wanting to actually kill me. If he calls my bluff, I'm not sure what my next move will be. Leaving a Nick-shaped hole in the wall after running away as fast as I can seems a viable prospect, though.

Azrael doesn't follow on my offer in any way. The silence is so thick in the hall that you could cut it with a knife. I dare to turn my head a little, look up to gauge the expression of his eyes through the sight holes of his mask.

They are slits of cold fire. He knows what I'm doing and it doesn't please him at all.

Nevertheless, he takes a step back and spreads his arms, proclaiming, "Rejoice, all you who serve Death! For today my son returns to the home of his father not with the hubris of a child, but with the serenity of a man! Arise and sheath your sword, Nicholas. Let bygones be bygones, and let the gates of Sheol always be welcoming to you!"

At first, there seems to be no reaction, either from me, or from the spectators to our little improvised drama. It's like a bucket of cold water had been dropped over all of our heads. Then, Azrael gives the rows of gathered angels and demons a sideways glare, and a growling, "I said rejoice!" and they all erupt into cheering applause.

At least it's a better reaction than the one I got as Shepherd #5 during third grade's Christmas play, I suppose.

I stand up, returning Final Judgment to its scabbard. Azrael takes a step towards me and bows to give me a rather stiff, formal hug. I return it, feeling a little awkward due to the situation and our height difference.

As he pats my shoulders, he whispers so only I can hear him, "I'm impressed, boy. I thought it'd be harder for you to stand up while being loaded with so much bullcrap."

I draw my lips into a tight line, but say nothing as he stands aside and announces, "The session is adjourned for today!"

"But, my Lord," the seneschal makes a token protest, "the souls in waiting—" He shuts his mouth as Azrael gives him a glare, then he says loudly, "The Court of Death is adjourned! Those who were saved today shall light the way to grace for those that will come after them! Let those who were damned be a warning to the wicked and the perverse! May we all perform our sacred duty well in the eyes of the Lord!"

It's kind of weird, but I swear that both Azrael and I sigh with the same tired inflection and at the exact same time.

The seneschal, the female wolf demon, and the Seraphim descend from their respective platforms as the rest of the spectators begin to vacate the hall in a quiet and orderly way. I assume the gossiping will start as soon as they hit the walled city's taverns.

"Nicholas, you never call, you never write...I thought you had forgotten all about us," the demonic prosecutor sneers—or smiles, I'm not sure—at me.

"Sonja, it's been a long time," I greet her, trying to put on a neutral expression.

I always wonder how all the internet weirdos back home would react if they knew that most of their perversions come from long-repressed genetic memories of a time when angels and demons walked the Earth freely in their true forms.

Sonja, of the blood of Mammon, has soft grey fur with a white streak that goes from the underside of her wolfish snout down to her chest. Her body is completely humanoid—and very female, judging by the curves suggested by her silky gown—except for the talons on her fingers, the bushy tail sticking out an opening on the gown, and the black, bat-like wings on her back. Her head is one of a wolf, except for the very human, very stylish mane of hair going down to her shoulders. The general effect is, well, intriguing.

"Not long enough," the Seraphim grumbles, approaching as well. The expression on his otherwise beautiful face is anything but friendly. "I would've been very happy not to have to see your stupid mug for another couple of eons."

If there was such a thing as a We Hate Nick club—and I'm not sure there isn't—my aunt Uriel would be its president, Uncle Ramiel would be its vice-president, and Gamaliel here would be its treasurer.

Like any other Seraphim, he's gorgeous in both his angelic and human guises. With his curly golden hair, sculpted features, and a physique like Michelangelo's David. The only things out of place are the black birthmarks on his otherwise unblemished alabaster skin. They stick up like flames from the formal collar of his gown and curl around his muscular neck. His wings are so white that they reflect the light like a lantern.

"Gamaliel, watch your tongue," Azrael warns him quietly, but firmly.

"My apologies, my Lord." The angel reluctantly bows his head. "I'd just wish your son had more respect for the proceedings and duties of this court. Instead, we have him hijacking it with another one of his charades, which sets us back for days." He turns to me, scowling. "Those poor souls are not going to save themselves."

"On the other hand, it's a bit of a reprieve for the ones that will be condemned." Sonja offers. Looks like they swapped roles. I wonder why I always seem to bring the best or worst out of people, with no middle ground.

Azrael sighs, staring down at the seneschal. "Rearrange the agenda, Samkiel. We will be starting an hour earlier and finishing one later for the next week. That should put us back on schedule."

"I will make it so, my Lord." The seneschal bows before retreating.

Sonja groans and Gamaliel fulminates me with his pale blue eyes. I try to look innocent. "Sorry."

The wolfish demon hooks one of her arms around her angel counterpart's waist and begins pulling at him before he can start chewing on me. "C'mon, Gam, let's go have a drink. I'll even let you invite me tonight."

"We're watching you, Scion," he whispers at me as they pass by my side. "Don't forget it."

I turn to watch them leave, wondering who 'we' are, but then I get distracted by Sonja's wiggling tail. "Are those two dating, or something? Is that not, like, a conflict of interests? Not to mention extremely weird? I mean, 'cause she could do so much better than that pompous idiot."

As I turn back to face Azrael, I realize we've been left alone. I suddenly feel naked and vulnerable. I feel like rolling on my back and offering my belly in surrender.

"I have a strict policy of not asking any questions." He looks down on me, regal as ever. "Why are you here, Nick? I don't think it's to gossip about my aides' private lives."

"I, uh, I need a favor," I admit, avoiding his eyes. "I know it's not a great reason to show up after all this time, but I don't want to pretend this is something it's not."

He nods. "I appreciate the sincerity."

We stare at each other in silence for a couple of seconds. I'm not really sure what to say next. Jumping right onto the subject feels cold and heartless. Even though I still feel conflicted about my father, I do have feelings for him. That's something I can't fool myself about.

"So, um, I like the new throne. Creepy and cool at the same time." Lame. Lame. Lame.

Azrael considers me for a moment, holding onto his Scythe's pole with both hands and sagging tiredly. "If you had to sit on that thing every day for twelve hours straight while dressed in full battle armor, you wouldn't like it that much. But it's a present from the guys, to celebrate the end of the castle's reconstruction. It'd be rude not to use it."

I can't help but to chuckle. "Yeah. Looks like I have to apologize for more things than I thought."

He nods and turns, cape swirling between his wings. It doesn't seem very practical, to be honest. "Let's get more comfortable. I need to take this crap off, you need to put a shirt on, and we both need lots of coffee."

I begin to follow him to the exit. "It might be a good idea to switch to decaf. Just in case."

The Angel of Death looks down on me with eyes blazing from behind his skull mask. "Don't blaspheme like that in my house, boy. You're not too old to get a spanking."

I roll my eyes and follow his steps. Apparently, I'm out for a nice cup o' java with my dad, the Grim Reaper.

And they say visiting your folks is always such a bore.

II – 'Death drinks no decaf.'

Azrael's quarters occupy the three uppermost levels of the central keep. The lowest one houses his offices and work space, and the middle one is his personal living area. I have no clue what's on the third level, but it must include a washroom at least, because when he returns from it in his flesh mask, he's wiping his hands with a towel.

I've been waiting for him for about ten minutes, using the time to be a bit nosy and snoop around my father's private room. I know it sounds awful, but the truth is that I barely know the man on a personal level, and I'm curious.

The room is a singular circular space with a metallic spiral staircase at the center, leading both up and down to the adjacent floors. It is also the worst mess of a place I've ever seen in my entire life.

There are seven windows evenly spaced on the circular wall. There is an unmade king-sized bed under one of them. Book shelves, work tables, and couches are spaced around the rest of the room.

Every single available horizontal space is covered in indescribable paraphernalia and towers upon towers of books. I'm afraid the slightest movement in the wrong direction on my part will cause an unstoppable avalanche of rubbish that'll crush me.

Books are a main theme, but there're also ancient-looking weapons, statuettes from a hundred different cultures, parchment scrolls, strange brass-and-glass devices—the functions of which I can only speculate about—and a whole table covered in about a hundred different snow globes. The place is about two pieces of trash away from being declared a hoarder's den. On the bright side, everything seems to be relatively clean and dust-free.

I walk around, minding my wings and my steps, having a look at everything and nothing in particular. I don't even know what to do, so I decide to brew some coffee.

The problem is, though, that what I think is the coffee machine might actually be a North Korean nuclear reactor, because of so advanced and complicated it looks. It's on a cabinet, next to some shelves filled with mugs and Tupperware containers labeled with handwritten strips of adhesive paper. Apparently, my father is as much of a coffee snob as I'm not.

Shaking my head—seems I'm doing a lot of that lately—I select a container whose label says "Colombian/Kenyan" followed by four stars. It smells pretty good, so I put some into a paper filter and, after some struggling with the machine, into the coffee maker. Then, I flick switches and push buttons randomly until I get a gurgling noise coming from the damn thing. It doesn't explode and the smell of brewing coffee soon starts wafting towards me, so I guess it's working.

While the coffee gets made, I move to the only piece of furniture other than the bed that's mostly free of debris. It's a worn out reclining chair with a small table at its side. On the table, there's a compact CD player with headphones, a stacked set of CD's, and three books with cardboard strips sticking out of their pages—to mark his reading progress, I imagine. One of the books is in ancient Greek, the other in some kind of hieroglyphic scripture I can't even start to decipher, and the third is a Robert Ludlum novel. Go figure.

The stacked tower of CD's almost gives me a stroke. Michael Bublé, I can accept; Johnny Cash, clichéd but hey, he was the man; but, Celine Dion? Celine Dion, Azrael?

"At least it's not Death Metal," I mumble under my breath.

"What are you saying?" Azrael asks, coming down the stairs.

"Nice crib," I dodge. "Cozy."

He chuckles, tossing the towel onto the bed. "Yeah, sorry about the mess. It's the maid's free day."

More like her free century. "Are you sure? She might be somewhere around here, buried under all this crap."

"What are you still doing like that?" He waves a hand at me as he moves to the coffee maker. "Make yourself comfortable, I don't want to strain my neck looking up at you while we talk."

I flash to my human self. The place seems even more cramped with trash at my shorter height. Azrael, once again, is taller than me.

Now, I've said that my angelic family is not blood related and, with the exception of yours truly, that's true. In their respective flesh masks, Gabrielle is a redhead, Uriel is a brunette, and Raguel was Asian. Ramiel is a massive Samoan bodybuilder, Raphael has a surfer dude look going on, and Sammael is the coolest black kid ever.

But, if you put Michael, Lucifer, and Azrael in the same room, nine out of ten people will immediately say that they are brothers. I don't know why that's the case, but it is.

In his flesh mask, Azrael looks about thirty-something. His dark hair is in need of a cut, and his eyes are the same stormy blue that all Archangels have. He is unshaven, but that fits well with his rugged, brooding good looks. He is taller than me, with wide shoulders, a barrel chest, and narrow hips. Most would say he's more than a guy who works out a lot, he's in great shape because his daily activity requires a great deal of physical effort, like a wrangler, or a serious construction worker, or something like that.

His attire gives off the same blue-collar vibe: faded jeans, brand-less sneakers, and a simple gray T-shirt with an unbuttoned red-and-black flannel shirt over it. My adoptive dad used to dress up pretty much the same when he was off duty. Weird how small the world is sometimes.

"Thanks for mentioning Kevin and Alex when you called me forth," I tell him as he gets a couple mugs from the cabinet, blows the dust off them, and pours us some coffee. "It, uh, it really means a lot to me."

Azrael shrugs, passing me one of the steamy mugs. "I told you many years ago, I will never be able to honor them enough for what they did for you. Recognizing their role in raising you to the man you are now, it's the least I could do."

I sip on the coffee, just realizing he didn't need to ask me how I take it. He knows. All I can say, though, is, "I'm not so sure I'm honoring them myself. Looks like the general consensus is that I'm little more than a disappointment for everybody."

Azrael takes a seat on the edge of the bed and invites me to do the same on the reclining seat. I politely refuse with a shake of my head and continue looking around. "And who are they that all of a sudden their opinions matter to you so much?"

"Well, both Michael and Lucifer, for starters. They both think that I'm wasting my life down on Earth, that I should be answering a higher calling, and all that." He considers me over the rim of his mug, while I have a look at a sagging shelf full of books. I can't even read the titles on most of their spines. "I've heard that you're not very happy with me, either."

"You mean because of the ghost incident?"

I nod, making an exaggerated wincing face.

"Yes, well, I won't lie to you. That was a major screw up, Nick. And it doesn't make me very happy to learn that you were so reckless in dealing with a soul. It was disrespectful. On the other hand, my guys were there, and it was their duty to take care of it."

"I don't like to pass the blame on others for my mess ups," I protest.

"That, Nicholas, is not for you to decide." His eyes are calm, but his gaze is firm. "I don't run a nursery here. The people working for me know the rules, and the consequences of not following them."

"You won't have them..." I can't really end the thought.

Azrael chuckles. "What? Killed for their failure? C'mon, Nick, I'm not an evil overlord. They're just on cleaning duty down at the generators by the river for the next month."

"Generators?" I frown.

His lips twitch in a small smile. "Yeah, I decided to do some reforming during the post-earthquake reconstruction. Where do you think the electricity for the coffee maker comes from?"

I shrug. I hadn't even considered it, to be honest. "Magnets?"

Azrael chuckles again. "Nah, I installed a couple generators by the river. The things in the water seem to love them, though. They get in the turbines and it's a bitch to clean. But hey,"—he raises his mug to exemplify—"fresh coffee on demand. And the guys love their gaming consoles."

The thought of a bunch of stiff-necked angels and demons playing Mario Party on the Wii makes me bark a laugh. It's kind of a dry sound, though. Feels like we're both tiptoeing around the subject, like two elephants in a glass house being really careful not to break anything.

"Getting back on track." Azrael moves his eyes away as I look at him, and I have the impression he feels pretty much the same way as I do. "I'll let you pass with a slap on the wrist this time, Nick. I've checked my records, and that guy you," he pauses, "ghosted, well, he was heading down in an express elevator. We'll say you saved him from an eternity of torment and leave it at that." He now looks straight at me, and there's no doubt of the severity of his next words, "But don't think that gives you free reign. Punishing the wicked is as much a part of our job description as saving the righteous. If you are going to start involving yourself again in matters of divine justice, I won't tolerate having you playing fast and loose with the rules, and especially not with the souls of mortals. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Sir." I nod after only a second of consideration. This time it's me who doesn't hold his gaze. "But I'm not really sure I'm going back into the playfield, Azrael."

If my calling him by his God-given name instead of some variation of "father" hurts him, the Angel of Death doesn't show it. He stands up and takes a step closer to me. "You are here, and you are wearing my old ring around your neck. Don't think for a second that I didn't notice. You are in the playfield again, and if you're honest with yourself, you'll realize that you never left it in the first place."

I bite my lower lip, back away from him and get back into my comfort zone. "So you agree with Michael and Lucifer? Am I wasting my life?"

I hear him taking a deep breath. "I love both my brothers, but we've never seen things in the same light. I don't know if that's because our Father wanted us to be this way. His plan is as mysterious to me as it is for anyone else. What I know is that Michael wants you to do right by God, Lucifer wants you to do right by us, by the family, and I..." He reaches for me, doubts for a second, but then puts his large hands on my shoulders and makes me turn so he can look straight into my eyes. I don't fight him, but I don't open myself to him either. "I just want you to do right by yourself. I want you to be happy, son."

I'm paralyzed, stuck fast by all the emotion bottled inside me. I want to say something. I want for Azrael to take me into his arms, or I want to scream at him until my face turns red. But I can't, because if I take the cap off, I know I won't be able to put the genie back in.

My father reads it in my eyes, in my face. He nods and lets me go. "You can't begin to imagine how much it pains me to know that you're this lost, Nick." His sadness is neither faked nor hidden, and it hurts me in ways I hadn't foreseen. "Angel by nature but human by nurture, you're a man of two worlds and yet you feel like you don't belong to either of them."

I swallow, hard. My eyes are burning. I didn't come here to be psychoanalyzed, or with any intentions to fix things up between the Angel of Death and myself. I tell myself I don't need to, that I can live my life on my own terms. But the truth in his worlds is like a sledgehammer to my wall of lies.

"I can't... I can't do this." I turn away for him, running a hand through my already messed up hair. "Look, I appreciate your concern, Azrael, don't think that I don't. But I just—I don't know. I need time, I guess."

He goes back to sit down on the bed. "I'll give you all the time and space in the world, son, you know that. But..." He licks his lips. I look at him and his eyes are darkened and guarded. "Time waits for no man, or angel. And nothing, nothing lasts forever."

There's a set of stone figurines on a shelf. I look at them so I don't have to look at Azrael. They seem to be old, really old, and of religious nature. I can't identify any of them except for one, which is neither old nor religious, or made of stone. It's a four-inch, cheap, plastic Spider-Man action figure, its red and blue colors muted with time.

With a frown, I reach for it. "Hey, I used to have one like this when I was little. I thought I lost it in the move to Jersey. I—"

I fall silent when, upon turning it in my fingers, I discover the inscription made on the sole of the figurine's right foot, scratched with a pen knife when I was eight years old and had no respect for such things. "NICK," it says.

I turn to Azrael, my mouth agape. He gives me a small, sad smile. "You forgot it in your old room; I think it fell off one of the boxes with your stuff. I meant to return it to you before you noticed it was missing, but," he lets a bitter chuckle go off, "I guess I let time go by. Kettle, pot, and all that."

It's been eleven years for me, but how long for him in this world where time flies by? For how many centuries has he held onto it? How long has he been keeping tabs on me?

"Why did you let me go?" It comes out so weakly, I barely hear myself saying the words. This is not what I came for. I don't want to do this. I don't want to ask these questions. I don't want to know.

I just want to go on pretending that there's nothing wrong.

But I can't.

"Why didn't you fight for me?" I take a step towards him. "You rebelled for Gabrielle, why didn't you do the same for me, father? Why did you obey God so blindly that you let Him cast me adrift in the river of time?"

I was conceived during Lucifer's rebellion, and born shortly after the Fall. When God found out about it, about His favourite daughter and His second-most-rebellious son—yes, I know, not real brother-and-sister, but still ughn—engaging in a relationship He had expressly forbidden, He went mad. He allowed me to live, but cast me into the spacetime flow like some sort of Moses, to reappear at a random time and place in the future. That's how I showed up in New York in the late twentieth century, a baby to be adopted by Kevin and Alexandra Dempsey.

Azrael wipes his face with his hand, tiredly. "You think that I, that your mother and I didn't fight for you? That we didn't plead, and beg, and promised our Father anything and everything to allow us to keep you?"

He stands up, his hands now closed into fists at his side. The tendons in his neck are strained with tension, and his face a mask of pain. "Why do you think I am here, Nick? Why do you think I've spent all these eons being the Angel of Death, withstanding the burden of judging endless souls into salvation or damnation? Why do you think your mother, the love of my eternal life, is in Heaven instead of here with me? Because we promised Him, Nick. Because we traded our happiness, our love, for your safety. Because it was either letting you go...or losing you."

I'm rendered speechless, and then I fall. Both on the reclining seat and deep inside, spinning out of control as if my wings had been broken in mid-flight. I feel like vomiting, crying, and laughing all at once. Something is hurting the palm of my hand. I lower my eyes as I open my fist. The Spider-Man figure. I was squeezing it so tightly that it dug into my flesh, leaving white marks in the palm of my hand.

"I don't understand." I shake my head. "Why would God reject me like that?"

"Ah, but did He?" Azrael kneels by my side and looks up at me with eyes that are now full of wonder. "Or is there something here we cannot see?"

I snort. "What, God works in mysterious ways? Michael already tried that line on me. I was ready to believe it, even. But after what you just told me? How do you want me to trust in Him, in anything He has done, or said? Especially when He is gone without a trace, without warning, without an explanation?"

My father shakes his head, shrugs. There's this strange smile on his lips, almost a maniacal one. A hopeful one. "Because I see you, Nick. Because I look at my son and I see him becoming something I've never seen before, something I never thought would even be possible. A free angel. An angel not bound to do the right thing by vows of obedience, but by the goodness of his own heart, and the lessons learnt in his very human life."

He grabs my hand, closes my fingers around Spidey's tiny plastic body as he looks into my eyes. "You randomly appeared back in time to be raised by a random human couple that taught you things none of us could. What a coincidence you happened to come out of age at the most decisive time for our kind. And how fortunate you became the pupil of the only angel and the only demon that were crazy enough not to just try dragging you to one of the sides of the conflict, but teaching you there was a third way, one that would bring peace for all instead of destruction and dominance. Random, coincidence, fortune."

I know what he's trying to get at. "God does not play dice."

"No, He does not," Azrael smiles. "Don't get me wrong, son. No one has been more angry at my Father than me, and for so long I can't even remember a time I didn't have to bite my tongue when kneeling in front of Him. And I have no idea what he pretends with you, that answer I cannot give you. But he has something in mind for you. That, I know."

"And what if I don't want anything to do with His plan, whatever it is? What if I'm sick and tired of dancing to the tune He plays for all of us?" There's not a lot of anger in my voice, just plain tiredness.

Azrael lets go of my hand, slides backwards to sit in his chair again. He offers me his palms and a twist of his lips. "What if that's exactly what He wants you to do?"

I sink into the reclining sit. I let my head fall back and stare at the ceiling. "Why does everything have to be so complicated?"

"Maybe because some lessons you can only learn by experience," he offers, once again getting off the bed to retrieve the empty mug from my hand. "Maybe because you haven't had enough coffee."

I chuckle in spite of myself as Azrael goes to refill both our cups. "I doubt there's enough coffee in all of creation to solve this riddle."

"There's never enough coffee, period." He grins down at me, handing me the refilled mug. I nod a thanks to him, accepting it. "Look, if you're going to accept a piece of advice from me, take this one: don't stress over it. All we ask from humans to grant them salvation is that they sincerely try to live their lives the best they can. Why should it be any different with you?"

"Because, I'm different." I look down at Spidey, still in my hand. I can't believe the next words coming off my lips, and more so, that I'm saying them without any sense of irony or sarcasm. "Because with great power comes great responsibility."

Something clicks in my head when I see Azrael trying to hide his smile with the coffee mug like a piece of a puzzle falling into place. "Son of a—" I bite my tongue. "You already know what I'm here to ask you, don't you?"

He makes a face, not exactly apologetic. "Nick...I know we haven't been, well, close. And I know you're an adult and you have your right to privacy, but you're my son. Don't think for a second that you can be held in custody on suspicion of multiple murders and that I'm not gonna find about it."

I snort and shake my head. My expression is an unbelieving one. "Which one ratted me out? Michael or Lucifer?"

"Oh, both called me." Azrael grins, obviously enjoying the way I'm blushing in embarrassment. "With just a five minutes' difference, I should add."

It is not that it upsets me—quite the contrary. There's a not entirely unpleasant tingle in the pit of my lungs, all because the very people I've spent the last few years of my life rejecting don't seem to understand the meaning of "stay the heck away from my life".

I should be angry, I guess. Maybe I'm too tired for it. Maybe I'm too old to be an angst-ridden teenager all the frickin' time. Is that what adulthood means? Accepting that life is a certain way because, what the heck, trying to change it is too much work?

Maybe Azrael is right. Maybe I just want something as simple as a place to belong to.

"Can you help me with my problem?" I ask, because I honestly can't continue with this line of thought. It scares me where it might lead.

"I don't know what happened, if that's what you're asking." My father seems apologetic. "I am not omniscient, none of us are. But," he raises a hand to prevent my incoming protest, "there's somebody else you could talk to."

III – 'A soul in the garden.'

Still in our flesh masks, we leave Azrael's quarters, climb down the stone spiral staircase, descend all the way on the outer ring of the keep, and abandon this via a lateral door. We come across several of my father's underlings and all of them bow their heads at him in respect as they get near. The Angel of Death returns their courtesies with a small nod and greets each one by name. I notice their eyes flickering to me, about two thirds of them with a tiny gleam of disgust, the other with wonder, all of them with shock.

For my part, I only nod and offer them one of those not-quite-a-smile everyone gives when they feel like an awkward third wheel.

We go through rooms, smaller keeps, and courtyards, zig-zagging through Sheol until I'm completely lost in this fortified city and its labyrinth of streets, halls, gardens, and dead ends.

I don't ask where we're going, though. It's not only my feet that are lost, but my thoughts as well. I was sure that Azrael would receive me in anger. Well, maybe not with open hostility, but definitively with a wall of detachment and the proverbial cold shoulder. Instead, his arms have been open. He has opened a door for me and now I don't know if I can cross it. I don't know even if I want to.

He halts suddenly and I, walking as closely behind him as I am, almost crash against him.

"What are you doing?" He frowns at me from his superior height.

"What?" I frown back, confused.

"Walking behind me. Can't you keep the pace, or something?" He seems suddenly worried, although he hides it well. "Are you hurt?"

"Uh, no, no," I stammer. "I thought, y'know, I should show some respect. The King leads and all that."

Azrael's lips are a perfectly horizontal line, his eyes unblinking. "Does that idea come from the same place as your 'I humbly come' speech line?"

I shrug. "I guess?"

"George R. R. Martin?" He cocks an eyebrow.

I give him a blush for an answer. He rolls his eyes. "Son, we are the Bene Elohim. There are three things we are not good at: carrying a tune, having peaceful family dinners, and eating humble pie."

Azrael resumes his walk and I struggle to catch up. He adds, "And none of us walk behind one another. We walk together, or we walk apart."

"Not even Michael?" I cock an eyebrow. Last time I checked, he was Regent of all creation until God decided to come back.

"Not even Michael." The Angel of Death makes a face. "But don't tell him I said that."

As I chuckle, we cross a stone archway and find ourselves at the entrance of one of the many gardens that pepper the fortress. The gardens of Sheol seem to be located at random, planted with no obvious rhyme or reason. My father prevents me from going any further by placing a hand on my shoulder.

"All the people that died in the restaurant that night have already been judged, except for one," he says, his voice suddenly a quiet whisper, as if he didn't want to wake up a nearby sleeping beauty. "I could not hold them back, Nick, not even for you. Once a soul is ready to go, forcing it to stay longer than a couple days is torture beyond anything that could be conjured up in the deepest pits of Hell."

Confused as I might be—and I am—I understand that even if from my perspective the restaurant murders happened only last night, it's been several days in Hades since the souls of the people that died there were brought for Judgment. This was something I had already considered, and was afraid of. My gamble had been that maybe one or more of them would need more time to get used to the idea of being dead, but then, I was expecting them to be still at the Forest of Waiting Souls, not here in Sheol.

Whoever is in the garden, Azrael has bent the rules to have him or her here. Not that I'm not grateful, but it's a bit shocking. "You could get into trouble for this."

"There are some risks worth taking." He shrugs. "And to be honest, this is a very particular situation. You might be of as much help to the soul, as it might be of help to you."

Okay, now I'm lost. "What do you mean?"

Azrael rubs his unshaven cheek, considering his next words. "What do you know about what happens to souls once they pass the threshold between life and dead?"

"Not as much as I thought I did," I admit. "Ariel and Cass taught me the basics, but my training was more focused on fighting guys with wings and minimizing collateral damage."

He gives me an unexpected impish grin. "I bet that wasn't the only thing they taught you."

"Well, I, ah..." I feel a new blush creeping to my cheeks.

"It's alright, son. I just hope you were responsible and used protection—"

"Moving on!" My ears on fire, I wave incoherently at him. "Souls! What don't I know about them?"

"Okay, okay." He obviously enjoys teasing me, the bastard. "Look, you've already seen what happens to a soul when it gets stuck into a loop before it can accept the reality of its own death. It becomes a ghost. It's rare, but it happens. Even rarer, though, is what we have here: when a soul that has accepted death, but can't bring itself to move along to the next stage."

I frown. "You wouldn't think that's weird. I mean, I get it in case of those who believe they're gonna be saved, but I can't think of many people that look forward to go to Hell."

"Ah, there's your error, son." He gives me a rather sad look. "You think of them as people, but souls are not human any longer. Just like we angels, they are something more in some ways. In some others, less."

"Cryptic much?" I frown even deeper. "I know I should be more versed in all this stuff, but I'm not. So, English, please?"

Azrael sighs, rubbing his palms together as if to warm them up. "Alright, when you were little, did your adoptive parents ever take you to the dentist, or to the doctor to get a vaccine shot?"


"And did you look forward to that?"

"Heck, no." I wince. "Dentist was not so bad, 'cause I always had great teeth. Angel, you know."

"Yes, but even though you hated getting those needles stuck into your bum, and I bet you fussed like you were being taken to the butcher, did it ever cross your mind not to go?" I make a face of denial. "Why?"

"Well, I don't know. Because my parents told me so. Because they would have dragged me there any—Aaah." I shake my finger at him as it dawns on me. "Because I didn't really have any control over the situation."

He nods. "We have a certain...pull with souls. For the most part, they acquiescence to our calls, but some don't, or better said, they can't." He stops me from formulating the next obvious question. "The only thing heavier than sin is regret. The things they didn't do, the words they never spoke, the lives they didn't get to live. Sometimes that burden is so heavy, that nothing we can do or say can move them."

"What happens to those souls?" I feel a chill and it doesn't have to do anything with the gloom of the garden's entrance.

Azrael's face turns sour. "Same as an exorcised ghost, they wither, and eventually fade away."

I scratch the back of my head, tired. I hate to think that the same thing that happened to Jimmy the Soldier Boy might be about to happen to somebody I used to know. "Well, what can we do about it?"

"Not 'we'." Azrael's grin is once again mischievous. "You."

I blink several times. "Alright, what do I do?"

He seems thrown off by this. "What, you're not going to argue the issue with me?"

"Why would I?" I honestly don't see the point of doing so. "I mean, you've made quite clear that in there is somebody in need of help, somebody that I might know, and that you think I might provide that help. So, what do I do?"

Now it's my father the one that blinks while staring at me. His smile turns into something I can't quite describe. He seems oddly pleased. "You look a lot like your mother, you know that?"

My hair is a shade or red so dark that it seems brown except under direct light, and Gabrielle's is a rich strawberry ginger, but otherwise I have her same generous mouth and high cheekbones, or at least that's what I've been told. I'm not sure how genetics work with Angelkind. As far as I know, I'm the only naturally-born angel ever.

I'm so special. Yes, that was sarcasm.

"I, uh, I'm not sure..."

"You have my eyes, though." Azrael continues smiling. "That was the first thing Gabrielle said when she had you in her arms, 'He has your eyes.'"

I clear my throat, a bit uncomfortable. "Yes, well, we all have the same eyes, remember?"

"Same eye color, maybe." He shakes his head. "But you have my eyes. And like me, you can see further inside a human soul than the rest of our brethren. Is that not that right?"

This time, my blinking is done with surprise. "I thought any angel and demon out there could do that. You know, see Cambions, and Nephilins, and all that stuff."

"Yes, we all can do that. But very few of us can peer deeper, see in the darkness recesses of every man and woman. Your aunt Uriel can see what will it be, I—and I believe you as well—can see what it was." He leans his hands on my shoulder. "Use that, son. It will come to you instinctively."

I sigh, once again rubbing the back of my head. "Okay, anything else I should know beforehand?"

Azrael lets go of me and stands aside, offering me entrance into the garden. "Remember that an eternal soul lies on the balance, son. Don't screw up."

"Hey, no pressure!" I growl as I pass him by. He stays by the entrance as I go further in. "Aren't you coming?"

"I'll be close by," he says gently. "But you have to do this on your own. I know you'll do well, Nicholas."

I lick my dry lips. I wish I felt the same confidence he seems to place in me. As said, no pressure.

I resume walking deeper into the garden. After a few steps, I look over my shoulder and I can't see either the entrance or my father any longer. It didn't seem to be this deep or leafy from the outside, but maybe it's one of those places in Hades where the space continuum is as quirky and messed up as the time one.

The garden has a Victorian quality to it. Deep green vines creep up wooden structures and half-hiding brooding statues of weeping or praying angels in gray marble. I get goose bumps all along my skin, and it's not because I think that those melancholic images will start chasing me whenever I stop looking at them. The sadness of this place is all-consuming.

I follow the gravel-covered path to the heart of the garden. Alien plants in dark reds, yellows, and blues don't give life to the scenario—only a profound sense of mournful timelessness.

There's a small fountain at the core of the garden. A stone angel is crying at its top and a young girl is sitting on its outer rim, her fingers drifting lazily on the surface of the water reservoir.

She looks up at me, and at first I don't recognize her. She looks about thirteen maybe, with golden, sun-kissed hair, and sad, big brown eyes. She is wearing a simple summer dress of white cotton and sandals. There's a band aid on her left knee and a missing tooth in her mouth when she smiles at me.

"Nick! You're here too!" Her eyes go wide as she really sees me, my flesh mask as transparent to the dead as their souls are to my father. "Oh wow, you're one of them. An angel."

And then it clicks. Gone are the black hair dye job, the vamp nail varnish, and the excessive eye shadow. Gone are the clothes with no other color than black, with long sleeves to cover the purple bruises left by her druggie husk of a boyfriend, and the old Doc Martens with scuff marks covered by permanent marker.

Gone is the seventeen-year-old I knew. Gone, but not forgotten.

"Hello, Ani," I smile at her as she stands from the fountain.

"You know I never let anyone else call me that," she chastises me with a voice that is too old and tired for her little girl looks.

I shrug, still smiling. "You know I never do as I'm told."

Neither Anastasia nor I move for a couple of heartbeats. Then, as if by accord, I take a step forward and she breaks into a run towards me. Her arms are under my jacket and around my chest even before I can put my foot down.

Her face leaning on my chest, I look down at her. My arms are open and, very slowly, I close them around her lithe frame.

We stay like that, in silence under an unmoving sun, embracing in a garden in the City of the Dead: a little lost girl, and an angel without a clue.

End of Chapter 9.