Authors: L. Penelope
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ir raid sirens
drone on and on. All around us, the desperate rush for cover. My feet slip on the slick cobbled streets as Viv and I dash hand in hand, my heart battering against my ribs. Blood surges through my veins, and I feel truly human now, all pretense stripped away.
The thunderous roar of a bomb pierces the air. It hits far too close — a building only three or four streets over disappears in a cloud of dust and debris, the sound almost loud enough to burst my eardrums.
We veer off sharply down an alleyway, our feet racing through congealed muck and mud. We’re nearly to the high street where we can shelter in the Camden Town tube station.
Viv stumbles and falls, tearing a gash in her leg. I pull her up and start moving again, but she screams out in pain.
I lift her into my arms. It isn’t much farther. A violent crack causes the earth to tremble. Wreckage falls from overhead, and thick smoke clogs the air.
Viv cries against my shoulder as I stagger down the alley, adrenaline pulling me forward. The ground shifts, makes me wobble, my footing unsteady. Her entire body shakes with the force of her sobs. My fingers tangle in her raven hair, trying to lend some strength and calm to her, but my power to
is long gone.
The path in front of me is obscured by dense smoke. I’m not at all sure we’ll make it to the high street.
“Viv, all you have to do is say the words,” I say into her hair.
The whistle of a bomb is close, so close every muscle tenses in anticipation. When the explosion hits, my feet are thrown out from under me. I grip Viv tighter, absorbing the worst of the blow.
My back is ablaze with pain. Something sharp pierces my skin. When I try to move, a gush of blood lets loose to coat my shirt. But my only care is for the woman on top of me. I hold my breath until she stirs, lifting her tearstained face and inhaling a shuddering breath.
“Caleb, I love you, but I don’t know.” She sniffs and chances a terrified look upward as the buildings on both sides of the alley rattle and shake. Glass shatters on the pavement beside us.
“The reverend told me not to risk my soul. Not to damage it in any way. What you’re asking
” She trails off with a snuffle.
“No, there’s no damage. I would never ask you to do that. I know it’s hard to believe, but the reverend is wrong. If you bind with me, we’ll be linked for all time. We will find one another again. Otherwise…” My voice fails when I consider the alternative, what happens if I die today with no soul.
I have only told Viv about the Wasteland in vague terms, not wanting to scare her, but the time for delicacy is long past.
“Viv, if I die today, I’m never coming back. I can’t go home, either, you know that. The place where I’ll end up…” Her beautiful face crumples. I tilt her chin back up to look her in the eye. “It’s a terrible place, and I’ll be there for all time. You love me, yes?”
She nods, her nose reddening as she continues to sniffle.
“Do you trust me?”
Her answer is not as quick. “You are everything to me.”
“Then — ” Up above, the sky groans and roars. The building next to us explodes in a shower of bricks, wood, and metal. I flip our positions, covering Viv with my own body, trying to protect her.
Heavy chunks of concrete fall onto my back, ripping away the skin. Bones crack, break.
Her breath comes in short gasps, but she’s still alive. “Please,” I whisper as death rains down around us.
She pants in shallow bursts for long moments. Then she wets her lips.
“Caleb, I … I bind my soul to yours for … for …”
Viv’s mouth continues to move, but no sound comes out. The remaining words of the binding are left unsaid. I would prompt her, but I have no breath left. My chest is in agony. The culprit: a steel rod that has passed through me and into Viv’s flesh.
Her eyes are open, tears still streaming down her face, but I watch the light in her eyes dim, then fade completely.
An orange-red brightness fills my vision. The light will take her away. But for me there is only darkness.
I jolt awake, my hands automatically running over my chest, the memory of the pain of death never far away. Deep, calming breaths restore my heart to its normal rhythm. My skin is once again smooth and unblemished — but I will relive that day for the rest of eternity.
Rising from the pile of ragged blankets that comprise my bed, I narrowly avoid tripping on the ever-widening hole in the floor. The three-story structure I’ve claimed is more a collection of bricks than an actual building. One wall has fallen away completely, revealing the surrounding area. The Wasteland stretches out before me, gray sky, grayer earth. A panorama of destruction and decay, stuck somewhere between worlds. Nothing bright or alive. The home for the soulless burps fetid smoke from its every pore.
Below is a post-apocalyptic nightmare filled with the husks and shells of buildings and cars, nothing like London, but with enough similarities to ensure my discomfort. Overhead, the winged forms of giant birds of prey loom, constantly circling. The inhabitants of the Wasteland call them Vultures, but ironically enough, they’re our guardian angels.
I scrub my hand across my scalp to rid myself of the lingering vestiges of the dream. Viv’s perfect face, caught in the last moment of her life, mocks me. I couldn’t protect her. I’d given up everything for her, for love, but she was gone. Kalyx had tried to warn me — human lives are so short.
I’d known what I was doing. What I was risking.
There is no day or night here, nothing but the endless dreariness and the Vultures overhead. On the ground, the empty shells of former people shuffle by, each lost in a personal torment. Sometimes I wonder if they, too, relive the last moments of their lives over and over again, wishing something had gone differently.
It’s useless to talk to the humans — they are different here than in the living world. Some vital part of them is lost when they’re brought to this place — not just their souls but their essences. None are useful for any sort of conversation or camaraderie. Most of the time I just walk and remember. Her face, her laugh, her skin. The way it felt under my fingertips. Her smile. The lushness of her lips on mine. Her slender, graceful neck.
This is my torture.
I’ve begun my usual route. Through the ruined city, across the lava fields to the desert. Every time I awaken, I walk and walk until I end back where I started, exhausted, and collapse on my little nest, only to start the whole thing over again the next day — or whenever. Without sunrise or sunset, it’s impossible to tell.
I’m trudging down the ruined pavement of the city when Wren arrives. He’s like me, built of slightly stronger stuff than the humans and more able to keep his wits about him here. Perhaps it is because we were born without souls and did not lose them. Whenever we meet, it’s because he has sought me out, never the other way around, though I do appreciate his visits. Eternity is a long time to spend alone.
He swoops down on me so swiftly, for an instant I mistake him for a Vulture, though they never interact with us.
“What the — ?”
He shoots me a cocky grin and leans in conspiratorially. “I’ve got something to show you, something I think you’ll like.”
My eyebrows shoot up. There’s nothing in the Wasteland to like.
“I know, I know.” His jovial demeanor turns serious. “But you have to come with me. Now.” He shoots up into the air. After a moment’s hesitation, I follow, curiosity overriding my misgivings.
Though my powers are weaker here, they never fade, but still I don’t use them. There isn’t anyone to
, the soulless cannot be healed, and I haven’t found a place worth flying to. Walking is merely a feeble attempt to stave off boredom and pass the time. However, Wren has always had a different attitude. I have never asked how he got here — there’s really only one option. He’s angelborn, just as I am, so he must have chosen the human world over Euphoria, then died with no soul.
Whether he never found anyone worth binding with or simply ran out of time, as I did, I do not know.
For the first time in memory, no Vultures occupy the sky. They are another reason I never fly. The skies are always peppered with them — their huge black wings inky intimidators keeping us locked in our eternal prison. Other than the Seraphim, no other angels present with wings in their physical forms. The Vultures don’t need them to fly, so they must just be for show.
“Where are we going?” I ask Wren, enjoying the lightness of my body and the air whipping across my face. I have missed this. “Where are the Vultures?”
He remains quiet as we soar up and up, far into the dull, overcast skies.
He continues to ignore me and moves even faster. It’s a struggle to match his speed. Some part of me knows what’s happening. His urgency, his caginess give it away.
Wren has always been different — confident, self-assured. He’s never allowed this place to defeat him. Somehow, I think he always knew this day would come.
The realization that I haven’t wanted to admit to myself takes hold, unshakeable.
We are trying to escape.
It isn’t possible. At least, not according to anything I know. But as we shoot upward, the Wasteland growing farther and farther away, now just a murky blur below us, I begin to do something I never thought I would again.
We veer sharply, making me a bit lightheaded, but a noise in the distance provides instant clarity: the flapping of wings.
“They’re coming!” I shout, reaching deep to increase my speed. The Vultures are fast — full angels are always faster and stronger than halflings — and they are rumored to be bested in strength only by the Warriors and the Seraphim themselves.
Panic strangles my breathing. My pulse stutters in staccato. This newborn hope is cruelly attacked before it even takes its first breath. I push hard, somehow able to keep my lungs pumping and my body moving forward.
Wren flies as one possessed, zigging and zagging as if to avoid invisible obstacles in the sky. I keep up, but just barely. With only a movement of his wrist as warning, he plunges into a stomach-turning nosedive back toward the ground.
I do the same, my face numb from the pressure of the drop. The ground grows closer and closer, but he doesn’t slow. I don’t look back to check the progress of our pursuers. The flapping can no longer be heard, but I don’t expect the Vultures to give up easily.
My chest unclenches a fraction when Wren shifts slightly, leading us toward the black surface of a massive lake. We crash into the water at speed. Darkness surrounds us, but we don’t slow. I haven’t any idea of his plan, but for once ignorance is bliss. Can we die in the Wasteland if we are already dead? If I drown in this lake, what will happen? I don’t know the rules and in this moment, I don’t care. Even the brief taste of freedom is worth the risk.
Then, just ahead, something appears. A sparkling golden portal casts its wavy light in the water. It is very like the one through which I watched the human world for so long, the one I passed through to leave Euphoria a lifetime ago. But only angels can create the portals — has Wren been in touch with someone from home? The thought falls away as I follow him full throttle into the warm, beckoning light.
The space between worlds is slippery and airless, like a constricting womb of energies dense with possibilities, begging us to choose one. Our human forms could not survive — there is nothing physical about this place. My body slips away of its own accord, changing back into the form in which I was born. Multihued light, insubstantial, conscious but without the senses of a human, or the emotions.
Cold logic is a welcome reprieve from the breath-stealing panic of moments earlier. Wren is another rainbow of light beside me. I slip and slide between the folds of reality, the other realms brushing against me, full of mysteries I dare not contemplate.
Euphoria is closed to us. We stayed away too long to return. Both Wren and I knew our fates before we left. Other, unknown worlds exist, but none who’ve ventured out to them have ever returned. The human world is the one true option; only among humans can we hide from the Vultures and any other interested angels.
I sense the Vultures again behind us, their light pulsing with intention. Capture, pursuit — that’s all they understand.
Without a body, floating in primordial energy, it’s difficult to judge time and distance — if those things exist at all. There is just the knowledge of pursuit, escape, salvation, haste. Emotion is muted in my angelic form, but my human memories remember what is at stake.
Finally, after what could be centuries or mere minutes, a familiar pull tugs at me. The press of all of the places we cannot go is relieved as the beacon of the one place we can beckons.
Slipping into the creases of the human world, I immediately change back to the form that feels more like home than my original body. Myself.
Wren and I emerge into a murky haze. Icy cold wind slices through my skin as I tumble from the sky. I struggle to reorient myself and take control of my powers again in this human body. The air is thin and hard to breathe, but still so much fresher than in the Wasteland. Wren is beside me, skin pulled taut by our rapid descent, dark eyes shining with merriment.