Michael thought this would get easier. The first time he was forced to tear a foreign power from another angel, to banish her to the worst fate any agent could suffer, regret threatened to consume him.
These days, seek was status quo, but destroy still left an aching pit in his chest. He hated sentencing the beings of heaven and hell—his colleagues—to an eternity of non-existence.
With luck, this time no one would have to die. If he lingered on it too long, guilt would paralyze him with indecision.
Lights flickered in the hotel hallway, as if mocking his hope, and a faint breeze from the air conditioner rushed over him. He paused in front of the room Abaddon gave him the number for, and extended his ethereal reach enough to feel, but not so much he would register on his target’s radar.
Jagged edges of aura pushed back, slicing his senses. This was the place.
The bright, red glow of an LED stared back at him from the electronic lock. A single shock from his finger, nothing to leave burns or traces, and he could short-circuit the device. This was something he loved about technology—destroying it was so much more subtle than blowing a hole through a door.
He wanted to give this guy the benefit of the doubt, though. No reason to barge in unannounced. Michael could be polite. He knocked.
Since he started hunting, he’d torn the extraneous power and the very essence from several angels, but this was his first demon. Not that there was much difference. They were created in separate places, but in the end, demon and angel were simply labels. Maybe being named in hell would make Azazel more pliable. Not that Michael believed it. All agents started as nondescript sources of power that appeared either in heaven or hell. A cherub served until one of the original angels—himself, Gabriel, or Lucifer—gave it a name.
A name granted purpose, made the cherub a demon or angel, and allowed then to assume a physical form.
The door swung open. Azazel’s aura flickered and danced in spikes of light, bleeding into the dimly light hallway, as if the power inside him didn’t know who was in control. That explained the jagged sensation Azazel radiated. The demon had an extraneous cherub. For reasons yet to be discovered, a century or two back cherubs started appearing on earth. They couldn’t survive without a physical form, and survival instinct drove them to inhabit the first they came across. Sometimes human, other times an inanimate object. Recently, agents discovered merging with one meant extra power. Judging by the electricity show Azazel emitted, sharing his brain with another entity was wreaking havoc on his psyche.
“The great and mighty Michael.” Azazel leaned against the doorframe, boredom in his tone. “So it’s true.”
This looked more cliché with each passing moment, down to the cheesy script. If Ronnie were here, she’d have a sarcastic retort. Her name added an ache of longing to the pit of disappointment growing inside. He extended his energy through the room and surrounding area. Nothing big or obvious, simply a blanket hid their activity from passersby, and kept Azazel from phasing someplace else.
“Azazel, you are in violation of the agents’ code of conduct. You’ve taken another life, in order to further your needs. Surrender the cherub now, and you’ll be granted absolution. Refuse, and your existence ends this evening.”
Michael wasn’t fond of the memorized monologue. When he helped innocents integrate, he played things by ear. After the first few Seek and Destroy missions, when he realized none of his colleagues would yield, he came up with the speech. It kept things simple.
“Who says they’re lives?” Azazel asked.
Michael swallowed a sigh. “This isn’t a philosophical discussion about what defines life. Cherubs are sentient, not energy drinks. You don’t get to pluck one out of existence because you need a little pick-me-up.”
Azazel furrowed his brow, as if considering the words, then his posture shifted, back going rigid and fists clenching. “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.”
Michael’s shield wobbled, tugging at him from the inside like someone trying to yank off a bandage. Azazel flickered then solidified again. He was stuck. Perfect. Michael reached for his arm. Once contact was made, Michael would absorb the foreign entity, send it back to heaven, return Azazel’s energy to hell, and destroy the name that granted him distinction.
In the milliseconds it took Michael to summon his strength, laughter clattered down the hallway. A family rounded the corner. Mother and father in their early twenties, daughter four years old. The stats flowed through Michael in a blink, as any mortal’s information did.
To the family’s eyes, the two men standing in the hallway would look like they were having a calm conversation. It was part of Michael’s shield. If anything seemed amiss, it would vanish from their thoughts by the time they reached their room.
Knowing that didn’t stop Michael from hesitating. They were innocent. Another thing he knew without question.
The tugging adhesive feeling shattered, and Michael stumbled from the recoil, as his energy wall crumbled and fled back into him.
“Hello.” The girl waved at them.
“Hi there, darlin’.” Azazel crouched to her eye level. “You havin’ a good evening?” He could have phased from the building, and no one would have been wiser. Why did he engage instead?
Tension tightened every muscle in Michael’s body. Keeping people safe—ensuring lives weren’t ended—was his main goal.
Discretion was paramount as well. The world didn’t need to think heaven and hell saw earth as an open battlefield. The media devoured stories about exploding balls of flame crashing into city buildings. That was thanks to Ariel, the first angel Michael went through this process with. Since, he’d prevented any more public act-of-God-like displays.
Mom grabbed the girl’s hand. “Come on, honey. Pizza’s getting cold.”
Michael felt the sparks race across his skin at the same time he saw Azazel’s aura flare. The instinct to protect humanity at all costs took over, and Michael flung out a new blockade of energy, shielding the family and fogging their minds at the same instant Azazel brought a crack of lightning crashing through the four stories above them, through the floor, and to the ground twenty feet below.
A gaping, smoldering hole stood where Azazel had been an instant earlier. The stench of burning wood and melting synthetic carpet singed Michael’s sinuses, and smoke rose into the now-visible sky.
The girl screamed, terrified at the sight, and her mother joined in.
Michael wanted to comfort them. He itched to sooth the distressed family, or better yet, shift their world so it had never happened. Memory fogging worked for glitches—things people would rather ignore. A five-foot crater running through a hotel? That couldn’t be masked.
Their fear and panic were tangible, permeating his skin, drilling into him thanks to inherent empathy. It left the foul taste of chalk in his mouth, and ached in his joints. The wide eyes they turned on him sparked with distrust. An almost tangible bubble of back the fuck off radiated from the family. He cast an invisible platform over the hole on every floor, so no one would fall in. It would dissolve in about an hour, and as long as no one tripped or stumbled into it, they’d never know. However, he’d risk reports of people walking on air to keep anyone from getting hurt.
Hating to do it he stepped away instead of reaching out to the family. Blinking out of site to move to a new location wasn’t an option. Their eyes were wide open right now, and he wouldn’t be able to make them forget anything they saw. As he strode for the stairs, irritation and frustration mounting, he pulled his cell phone from his pocket and dialed 911. “Yes. I’d like to report a freak act of God.” He gave them the address.
The moment he entered the stairwell, he phased to his ethereal form and vanished from the mortal plane. It took him months to track down Azazel, and now the bastard was gone again, leaving destruction and terror in his wake.
I could reach out to Ronnie. See if Ubiquity has anything on him. Michael growled at the errant thought, and the surge of longing that mingled with his frustration. He didn’t understand why he still missed her, but giving into the impulse to see her again wouldn’t further his cause.
This was going to be a long decade.
* * * *
Ronnie gave Izzy a tight hug. “I’m glad you’re doing better,” she said and stepped back. Izrafel was a fallen angel who had gotten caught in the crossfire when Ariel, one of Ronnie’s colleagues, made a bid for more power, and destroyed half the city in the process.
Some angels and demons chose to fall and become mortal because they no longer believed in what they did. Izzy was one of those who had decided he’d grown as much as he could ethereally, and opted for mortality as a chance to become more.
The foot traffic outside the corner coffee shop parted around them, people going about their day. She nodded at Holden, the man standing next to him. “And it was nice to meet you. I hate to cut and run, but…”
Izzy gave her fingers another squeeze before letting go. “I never thought I’d see the day that a lost, amnesiac demon would become a corporate drone.”
“I’m not a drone.” She focused on the teasing banter, and not the way Holden rarely took his eyes off her. The afternoon heat beating down on her exposed shoulder blades was pleasant. His gaze? A lot more blistering and uncomfortable. “I’m more like a queen bee.”
“Right. Tuesday night?”
“I’ll be there.” She waved over her shoulder as she strolled away. She could have phased back to work, but she wanted to take her time returning. That, and Holden might not be so easily compelled to forget her blinking out of sight. If he was a prophet, and had the ability to see a demon or angel’s aura, he’d witnessed enough weird shit in his life that he’d remember someone vanishing in front of him.
The moment she rounded the corner, she dialed a familiar number.
“How’d it go?” Lucifer asked.
“Next time do your own dirty work.”
“That good, huh?”
The memory sent chills down her spine. “Creepy bastard wouldn’t stop staring at me. An entire meal, and I’m supposed to pretend I don’t notice?”
“So he either knows or swings both ways.”
“I should have just asked him.” Ronnie rolled her eyes. “Hey. Are you glued to the fact I glow, or do you just like the way I look in a skirt? I’m not doing this again.”
“You mentioned that.” His voice came from next to her, instead of through her phone. “This isn’t about me.”
She glanced sideways to confirm he’d fallen into step beside her, and then she pocketed her phone. “Yeah, yeah. Greater good and all that bullshit. Even if it weren’t for the whole gawking-boyfriend thing, I don’t like lying to Izzy.”
“You’ve mentioned that too. You’d rather tell him the man he loves is using him to get insider information?”
“I’d rather not tell him anything, but—”
God. He was so infuriating sometimes. It figured her closest ally, the only person she could talk to, was Lucifer. Arbitrator for humans and agents alike. “You know that’s not what I mean. I’d rather he know the truth, and if that’s the reality of the thing…”
“Don’t blow this for sentiment. Who do you have watching him?”
“Tia, but that’s not the point.” Tiamet was a demon Ronnie had worked with when she was in retrieval. Tia loved office gossip, and—like most demons—good ice cream. She wasn’t powerful, but she made it up in enthusiasm. Izzy’s safety was a concern, but more because until just a few months ago, he hosted a cherub. It had been stripped from him, leaving him more mortal than he was used to. He didn’t understand the limits of his human body yet.
Ronnie might feel better about the whole thing if she knew whom to be worried about. As a conglomeration of Metatron, an original angel who Gabriel tried to destroy thousands of years ago, and Uriel, the cherub Lucifer named and tried to use to bring Metatron back to life, Ronnie had both of their memories. But the few thousand year gap between one vanishing off the radar and the other popping into existence meant she didn’t know who the power players were in heaven and hell. It wasn’t as if there were a company roster somewhere that said these agents might be mentally unstable, and lusting after power.
Lucifer and Ronnie passed a candy shop, and she watched the taffy maker spinning in the window, until it was too awkward to walk and study the hypnotic rhythm at the same time. They had the best homemade caramel.
“If you think I’m wrong about Holden, why haven’t you said anything to Izzy yet?” Lucifer asked.
Because she wasn’t certain. Admitting that doubt made her feel weak somehow.
“Exactly.” His tone implied he knew what she was thinking, even though she hadn’t said anything.
Arrogant ass. “If it’s not true, I’m not going to break Izzy’s heart over it. He’s happy with this Holden guy.” Besides, if it was true—if Holden was involved in a string of agent disappearances—Izzy was her and Lucifer’s way to get to him. And Izzy was a lot more likely to play the doting-boyfriend role if he was actually a doting boyfriend.
“It’ll all work out. I promise.” A smooth assurance bled into Lucifer’s tone. “We’ve got at least a day until the apocalypse.” And with that, he vanished.
“That’s not funny,” she shouted at the empty air.
“It’s not supposed to be.” His voice whispered in her ear, though he was nowhere to be seen.
A few people turned to stare at her, and a couple others crossed the street. She didn’t care. Ever since she figured out how to merge the two voices in her head into one, she was secure in her sanity. Having the memories of two separate individuals might be disconcerting, but it didn’t make her nuts.
She was tempted to turn around now, go back to Izzy, and pull him aside for a serious conversation. She’d been on the receiving end of Lucifer’s it’s for your own good deceptions. After he named her Uriel, and stuck Metatron in her head, he lied to her for months about why she heard voices, hoping things would just work themselves out. She figured it out eventually, but things would have gone a lot faster if she had the truth up front.
This was different. Angels and demons were disappearing from Ubiquity around the world, and Holden could have the answers to why. Lucifer didn’t want to spook him. He and Ronnie didn’t want to be wrong, and they did want to find their people before Holden and his friends had a chance to—
She wasn’t sure what the consequences would be. But humans kidnapping agents? Finding a way to restrain them without getting their asses kicked? That couldn’t be good.
If Michael were here, she’d have someone she trusted to bounce her thoughts off. She bit the inside of her cheek, hoping the external pain would scrub his name from her mind. It didn’t work. Loneliness hammered against her ribs, begging her to seek out the one being in this world who always made sense.
It was his decision to leave though, and she refused to chase after an angel who would rather be a ghost than feel anything outside of duty.
Her phone chimed, jarring her from the rambling thoughts. She considered ignoring it when she saw the call was from the office. She was on the clock still, despite taking a break to run Lucifer’s errands.
“This is Ronnie.”
“We’re being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission,” Samael said.
The SEC. As far as she knew, they investigated financial issues. Things that would cause harm to investors, cases like that. What did they want with Ubiquity? “Is that a new kind of cryptic code phrase? The clock strikes two at midnight.” She kept her tone light, despite the spike of nervousness that ran through. Unlike some of her colleagues, who had filed their sense of humor in a rusty old cabinet somewhere, under Open Never, Sammy would appreciate the joke.
“You’re funny. Super hilarious.” His tone was flat. “I need you back in the office now. Damage control.”
Or maybe he wouldn’t like the teasing. This must be bad. “On my way.” She didn’t take orders, from him or technically from anyone. When Uriel and Metatron merged, becoming her, it made her one of the four most powerful servants of heaven and hell, and an original angel. She only answered to a single higher power. But Ubiquity, humanity’s largest search engine, was a public-facing company, and she was that public face.
Less than a second later, she stood in her office in corporate headquarters. She placed a series of calls, asking PR to write her statement for her final approval, and Art to be ready to film her webcast and push it to every site they needed, ensuring the news trended before the SEC press statement spread far and wide.
Getting all those ducks in a row in a matter of minutes wasn’t a trick of heaven; Ubiquity had good tech. There were advantages to being responsible for what people saw when they searched for things.
Six months ago, this was Gabriel’s job. Before he tried to destroy Metatron for a second time and let his megalomania shine through. She’d temporary relieved him of his power as thanks. If she could wish the work back on him without giving him any other authority, she’d do it in a heartbeat. Talk about the ultimate punishment. Knowing him, he’d enjoy it
Half an hour later, she sat in Video, in front of the camera, speech half-committed to memory and scrolling on the teleprompter, in case she needed the reminder. The same text would be released when her footage was.
She flowed smoothly through the talking points. “Ubiquity International, Incorporated, was informed today that the Securities and Exchange Commission has received complaints from our investors about our offerings.” She kept her smile fixed in place as she talked, wishing she could weave some kind of magic voodoo on the camera to make this all go away. Who reported them, anyway? She wasn’t aware of any complaints.
“Rest assured, these allegations are false, and we’ll be lending any support to the SEC that they request.” Something like this could tie up their assets for months. Being an earth-based business, they needed money to operate, the same as anyone else. Normally, they were liquid enough it wasn’t an issue.
On the surface, Ubiquity was the world’s largest search engine. Under the covers, it existed to find rogue cherubs, extract them from their human hosts, and return them to heaven or hell before their lack of knowledge could cause someone harm. With the recent turmoil surrounding Ari and Gabe, and the revelation angels and demons were stealing cherubs, Ubiquity needed to ramp up new development on algorithms specific to tiny portions of the population. That meant they needed more hardware and the cash to pay for it.
“As always, Ubiquity has the answers you’re searching for. Reach out to our PR department using the contact information in the comments, and we’d love to speak with you.” She paused after the last sentence, keeping her expression and posture pleasant, waiting for the all clear.
“And… we’re done.” One of the lower demons stepped from behind the camera. He gave Ronnie a thumbs-up. “Looking good, boss. Editing is on hand, and I’ll have the final in your box in half an hour for approval.”
“Thanks.” She let her frozen grin slide away and worked her jaw a few times to get the feeling back in her cheeks. It was going to be a long week.