Authors: Joshua Ingle
Sporting designer jeans and a stylish bob cut, Lexa strode toward them. Amy hopped off her treadmill to address the incoming tornado and grinned the fake grin she always wore for Lexa. “Hey, how’s it going?”
Lexa grabbed her shoulder and whispered loudly. “Seriously. Seriously, Amy. I need the money you borrowed.”
“Sure, uh, when?”
“Like yesterday. I’m performing at the Rialto all this weekend, and the whole theatre department will be there, and I literally can’t be seen driving around in my current car or my face is going to explode. Literally.”
“The car you just bought?”
“I would ask my boyfriend, because he has a nice car, but I just found out it’s his mom’s, so I broke up with him.”
At this close range, Lexa munching on her gum resonated louder than all the din of the rec center. Amy seemed speechless. Thorn wished he could help her, but Shenzuul floated right next to her, and would hear any speech Thorn whispered. Amy couldn’t possibly afford to pay back the four thousand she’d borrowed from Lexa for tuition—at least not all at once. She could spend a few months earning it back at her waitress job, but then her ability to pay for classes next fall would be doubtful. After her poor grades this semester, she would be ineligible for financial aid.
“I, um…” Amy stuttered for a few moments. “I mean, the car you have is really nice. Isn’t it only a few months old?”
“Well it’s sort of like the poor-people model of nice cars. They have this
blue ragtop in a lot up in Buckhead and I can trade in my pink car for that one for just five thousand extra. It’s a really great deal, trust me. I’ll take you on rides places, ’kay?”
“I can pay you back a little, but, uh—”
“Like how much?”
“I dunno. Just, uh, let me check and I’ll get back to you.”
“Fine. But Amy.” Lexa eyed Shelley suspiciously. “What are you doing here? Is this who you’ve been hanging out with?”
“Uh, no. We just met.”
Lexa seemed bothered that Shelley held her gaze. “Hmm. Well, it’s nice to see you working out. Take care.” She walked off.
No sooner was Lexa out of earshot than Shelley whistled in amazement. “Who was that?”
Amy jumped back on her treadmill and started it up. “Just Lexa.”
“Is Lexa your friend?”
“You know, no amount of exercise will help you be happy with your life if you keep peeps like her around.”
Amy shrugged. “She’s not always like that. She can be pretty nice.”
As Amy and Shelley continued their discourse, Shenzuul impatiently glanced at Thorn, probably expecting him to intercede. Thorn remained still. “What you do now?” Shenzuul asked.
“Nothing,” Thorn said. “Sometimes you don’t need to whisper. Sometimes you can just let human nature take its course.” Thorn’s followers gave him confused glances. He couldn’t come up with a reason why two girls exercising together would lead to something negative, so he let his vague platitude hang in the air. He rose above the treadmills, toward the recreation center’s roof. Outside the windows, the sun hung low in the sky.
Shenzuul and Thorn’s other followers kept pace. “Right, you very wise to see. Human nature evil.”
Thorn used to agree with that. Now he wasn’t sure. So he just nodded and exited the building. “Time for us to part, Shenzuul. We’ll reconvene in the morning.”
“No. No! I follow you. Learn from you.”
“The Judge assigned me to teach you about the subtleties of human temptation. I can only do that when I am around humans, which I do not intend to be again until tomorrow morning. So until then, goodbye. The rest of you as well, leave me be. I desire solitude.”
Shenzuul and the others reluctantly dispersed. If Shenzuul was reporting to Marcus, Thorn isolating himself was risky, but he would travel through the ground so he could not be followed. Then when he was finished at his destination he would join the inner-city demon horde in the night. One clandestine outing would not be so bad…
The night air was still and cold at the site of the future North Decatur subway station. No wind was present to sway the metal hook that hung from a crane over a hundred feet tall. Only columns, scaffolds, and bright new concrete steps kept Thorn company as he waited in the quiet. The construction site rested mostly aboveground, but the subway’s western rail dipped into the earth a bit, so Thorn had chosen this hidden spot for his waiting. Although humans and therefore demons abandoned the new station at night, he remained vigilant for any wandering demons passing by.
I must not be seen here. I must not be seen with
. Where is she?
Unbidden, his thoughts turned to the shooting at the daycare. Children screaming, dying; blood spattered across the walls and floor; Thorn helpless to intervene. His own charge had killed them, but not at Thorn’s request. If only the other demons had heard his whispers. If they’d realized that Thorn had been trying to
Jed rather than spur him on, Thorn might have had the pleasure of being dead now.
Instead, Thorn was forced to live, haunted by the specters of his many victims, still vivid in his memory. He feared he would never redeem himself for the shootings, nor for the countless other deaths of innocents he’d caused throughout history. No, he would have to live with all that death, and with the burgeoning realization that he’d been on the wrong side of the battle since the beginning of time. Thorn still loathed the Enemy for what He’d done to demonkind, but he also hated demonkind for the pain and carnage they continuously inflicted on themselves, and on humanity.
Where does a demon go who is caught in the middle?
Thorn had gone to the angels’ quarantine zone in northwest Atlanta. Vastly outnumbered by demons, the few remaining cherubim were content to stay in the quarantine zones into which demons had forced them long ago, after the war. In the wake of the Christmas Eve shooting, Thorn had gone to Atlanta’s zone to defect, to admit his newfound desire to be
; but instead of solace or rejection, Thorn had found… something else. Some evidence of a grave secret. He had found Xeres, the great demon he’d followed for centuries, who had died in the early 1540s. Only now, somehow, Xeres was a full-fledged angel, complete with majestic wings and a white robe. He’d pretended not to know Thorn, then when Thorn had recognized him, he’d fled.
Thorn had floated there, dumbfounded, trying to make sense of what he had seen. A whole universe of questions had opened up before him. Common knowledge said that a demon’s sin was permanent, that none could defect. It was one of the cornerstones that had driven demon actions for billions of years. Despite having somehow become an angel, Xeres himself had stressed the impossibility of defection when Thorn had asked for help. Thorn had raved about conspiracies and lies, kicking and screaming as the angels drove him into the ground beneath their warehouse, yet even after months of searching for clues, of clandestinely petitioning the angels for audience, he still had no new knowledge of what he had seen.
But he had a guess.
In 1540, Xeres had left his territory in what would one day become Georgia to enter a Sanctuary. Created by the Enemy as testing grounds for humans, Sanctuaries had a reputation as dangerous, mysterious places. A demon could earn great prestige by journeying to a Sanctuary and killing the humans there, but the risk was so great that only one in a hundred thousand demons had ever attempted it. Of those, perhaps half had returned. And almost all of those had gone in groups. To enter a Sanctuary alone was nearly tantamount to suicide, so Xeres’s boldness had been lauded throughout the demon world at the time.
Xeres had returned from his Sanctuary as many demons did: quiet and glum. Like a neutered dog, he wandered and pondered, licking whatever emotional wounds he’d sustained. He claimed to have successfully killed the Sanctuary’s humans, but he avoided
humans upon his return, refusing to tempt anyone. He was killed by his own kind for it. Thorn had seen the body.
When Xeres was killed, Thorn had been too concerned with his own attempts to succeed him to think through the circumstances of his death. But ever since he had seen Xeres as an angel two and a half months ago, Thorn had been turning those past events over and over in his mind. He had tried to recollect everything he’d ever learned about Sanctuaries, too.
The demons who returned from Sanctuaries in groups would brag excessively, but their tales were all the same: they had murdered people, depriving entire lives of their future purposes. Some would entertain with tales of close encounters with the Enemy Himself, which Thorn always took for exaggerations (though influential exaggerations; the myth that the Enemy watched Sanctuaries closely was widespread). The few who returned from Sanctuaries they had entered alone—those like Xeres—never wanted to discuss their experiences. Some would urge their peers to fear Sanctuaries and avoid them at all costs. Others had the opposite reaction, bidding their peers to make the journey. Only one strange commonality permeated all the stories: reportedly, somehow, demons had more power in Sanctuaries. Their whispers were stronger, they had limited influence over material objects, and some could even possess the bodies of dead humans. Or so it was rumored.
Thorn had never been to a Sanctuary. He’d always avoided them due to the eerie fables surrounding them. Many thousands of years ago, when the first humans walked the earth and Sanctuaries had just been discovered, one demon acquaintance of Thorn’s had ventured to a Sanctuary and returned crazed and homicidal, inexplicably slaughtering other demons with no regard for the First Rule. Terrifyingly, it was not the demon Judges who had killed him. The
had reached down from Heaven with His own hand and smote the offending demon. To this day, no one knew why. And that incident had been enough to convince Thorn conclusively that travel to Sanctuaries was a bad idea. They held too many unknown threats.
But do they make angels?
This was Thorn’s new theory, and it rested on the fact that every demon who did return from a Sanctuary had killed the Sanctuary’s humans. Thus, popular consensus assumed that the demons who failed in this goal had died. But what if they hadn’t? What if, due to some strange magic in the Sanctuaries, those vanished demons had been allowed to defect? Was Xeres’s transformation a result of his time in the Sanctuary? The theory left much to be explained, but it was a start.
Fluttering white robes suspended Thorn’s musings. A beacon of light in Thorn’s darkening world, Thilial rose from the ground and assumed a defensive posture beside a sign advertising the rapid transit system’s green-line expansion. She held her head high, and she appeared stronger and more robust than she had the last time Thorn had seen her. “What do you want?” she said abruptly.
Thorn tried his best not to sound desperate. “Ah, Thilial, thank you for coming.” Leaving the quarantine zone was perilous for her, but every night for the past two and a half months, Thorn had furtively entered the zone to nag the angels for a parley (and to search—so far unsuccessfully—for Xeres). They would not kill him, knowing full well the retaliation such an action would bring from Atlanta’s demon population. So eventually they were forced to relent, not because they cared, but because they wanted Thorn to shut up and go away. Thilial’s terse demeanor indicated she wanted Thorn to do so immediately.
“I want you to know,” he said. “I want you all to know that I have abandoned my fantasy of becoming the greatest demon of all time.” The fact that this had once been his life’s ambition embarrassed him beyond description. “I want to be good now. If you could make an exception for me, I would like to be one of you.”
“Be honest, Thorn.”
She shook her head and sighed heavily. “You killed all those little kids.”
“No. No! It’s a mistake. See—”
“You’re well on your way to becoming the next Lucifer. Just keep it up.”
“I told you I don’t care about that anymore. I don’t care about power or safety or conformity or…” As he said this, he realized he spoke a half-truth. Thorn did fear his moral transition. This meeting with Thilial was a desperate plea for companionship: some company to cushion the blow if he fell from demonic grace. If the angels’ final answer was “no,” Thorn might be too afraid to make any further changes.
The fear of loss.
“And I told you to be honest.”
Her stubbornness infuriated him. He spoke as loudly as he dared. “Okay, fine. You want the truth? The truth is that I hate everything about my existence. I hate being a demon.” He approached her, and she backed toward the wall. “I cannot continue this ruse forever. Eventually I will get caught and they will kill me. And even if I
able to keep it up forever, I would go insane, Thilial. How can you—I don’t know what it’s like for you sitting in your cozy warehouse, filing paperwork and being holy and doing whatever it is you do all day, but out here in the real world, life is more difficult than you can imagine for anyone with a shred of decency. All I’m asking you for is some help. So yes, you’re right. The only reasons why I want to change are selfish ones. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
Thilial glared at him for several moments, hatred gleaming through her icy eyes. “You killed Ezandris,” she said. Then she turned to go.
So this was all for nothing. They would not relent. Thorn’s plea had failed.
Why did I have to kill the damn angel? They wouldn’t despise me so much if I had let him live.
“Thilial,” Thorn called after her. She stopped but did not turn. “I saw Xeres. I know he defected. I know that somehow, it’s possible. And I’m going to find out how.”
Thilial bowed her head and sank slowly into the dirt, her back still to Thorn. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said before she disappeared.
Shenzuul found Thorn around midnight as he was wandering the streets of Midtown. “Come,” the short demon told him. Thorn was in no mood for games. If Marcus wanted a confrontation, Thorn would provide it.