Shadow Ink Press
The Aligned by Kristy Berridge Summary
Araqiel’s fist slammed upon the gilded table before him. Groaning in protest, the surface quaked beneath the power of his divine touch. Determined to remain intact, the marbled centrepiece divided him from both aggressor and ally, serving in judgment’s realm for many millennia. The angel’s fist was not the first to make acquaintance withits beautiful, veined surface, nor would it be the last. ‘I am not interfering,’ Araqiel repeated, voice quiet and controlled. Rage was fleeting, focused entirely within the centre of his tightly clenched palm. Angels did not succumb to extreme sentiment. Angels were divine, spiritual – agreeable. Weak, he thought quietly to himself. ‘Araqiel, you come before us with a request we cannot grant.’ With narrowed eyes, Araqiel studied the demon across the vast marble table. A gnarly-horned creature with the body of a man and the head of a goat sat pregnant with barely contained satisfaction. Chocolate-brown skin glistened with the heat of the underworld and his eyes were the colour of fresh blood. Samael was one of four council members who sat in judgment in Purgatory.His counterpart Mammon, minions of Lucifer and advocates of all that is evil and unjust, were opposed on principle to anything Araqiel requested. Nakir and Munkar, the remaining council members, sat pretty and seemingly indifferent amongst the sanctimonious, sulphur-belching miscreants at the marble table. Araqiel noted Samael shift gleaming, ruby-coloured eyes over the angel, perhaps conscious of recent, unsolicited activities. Was the demon aware that Araqiel had provided Elena with divine intervention, propositioned a Vampire named William to protect her? Interference was against angelic and demonic policy, perhaps why Samael gloated; rubbing his calloused palms together. Araqiel had skirted the rules and now there were consequences. William had fallen in love with Elena, outside the scope of Araqiel’s plan, but at least she’d remained unharmed because of that love … until now. Continued protection was paramount. Elena was the key to the past and the Archangel Michael’s salvation, Araqiel’s own chance of re-entry back into heaven merely the icing upon the cake. ‘All I’m asking,’ Araqiel continued, ‘is a chance to help free Elena from the Werewolves. She is still a child, an innocent and—’ ‘The blood of Vampire and Werewolf run through her veins, Araqiel,’ Munkar said. ‘She is not entirely innocent.’ ‘She is the result of a terribly unfortunate situation,’ Araqiel reasoned. ‘How is she accountable for her birth?’ Samael shook his head. ‘She is a half-breed, spawned from the seed of the damned. Some of her abilities are clearly a result of darkness. She has fed from an Alpha wolf and knowingly consumed the blood of a Vampire named …’ Samael shuffled through the papers in front of him. ‘William?’ Araqiel bit his tongue and suppressed the sigh nestled at the back of his suddenly dry throat. This plan involved considering the variables of Elena’s impulsive and unpredictable nature. But the sexual interest in William was unexpected, the ardent exploration of each other’s lips and subsequent blood exchange even more so. Definitely not part of the plan. ‘She did not know what she was doing.’ ‘I do not believe that,’ Samael argued, whiskered nose creased to echo his haughty expression. ‘She knew that taking the Vampire’s blood would change her.’ ‘She was caught in the moment.’ Nakir’s snowflake complexion melted as he blushed. Mammon laughed, perhaps amused by the angel’s discomfort. ‘Yes, we have all seen this moment you speak of. It’s inconsequential whether her amorous activities are a result of her human hormones or damned blood.’ Araqiel pursed his lips, heated gaze flitting across the crimson skin of the sweat-slicked demon. ‘All I ask is to lead someone – anyone – to her aid, be it Vampire or angel. Elena is the daughter of the master Vampire and her blood is suffused with Vânator, but she is still human, therefore worthy of my help.’ Mammon rested his hefty weight across his elbows, leaning menacingly across the marble table. ‘What is it about this half-breed girl that fascinates you, Araqiel? This is the third time you have petitioned the council for permission to interfere.’ Furtive looks shifted between the angelic brethren. The demons could not know that Elena had the power to wipe clean the eternal bloodlines of both Vampire and Vânator, and to free Michael from an eternity in Purgatory. ‘Elena is a curiosity,’ Araqiel answered with a cavalier flick of his wrist and bored expression. ‘She is the sun in which all darkness appears to revolve around – a highly entertaining development.’ ‘Mere curiosity?’ Mammon goaded. ‘I do not believe your petition is valid based on this seemingly superfluous motivation. Unless, of course, you have more to reveal, Araqiel?’ Araqiel was uncertain whether he could maintain this depth of deception. ‘I cannot stand back and watch her needlessly suffer.’ That admission of weakness seemed to please Samael and Mammon. ‘We vote no,’ Samael concluded. ‘The girl has already been gifted visions of her father and …’ Samael frowned again, shuffling first through his own papers, and then through Mammon’s. ‘Who is Sebastian?’ Araqiel chanced a glance at the other two angels; their metallic eyes glowed with caution. But before he could respond, Mammon growled, his long, rubbery tail rising behind him like a serpent rearing to strike. He stabbed a greasy finger against the stack of papers before him. ‘Wait, it says here that she has been dreaming about “Sebastian” for years. Why would you feed her these thoughts, Araqiel?’ ‘I did not feed her thoughts of the Vampire,’ Araqiel answered honestly. ‘Her dreams are her own.’ ‘Yet you showed her two guiding visions: one of her father, Lucius, and then one of this Vampire Sebastian?’ Mammon pressed. ‘I petitioned for this because Elena was in danger. Lucius offers safety, and Sebastian is a trusted member of his coven with unparalleled tracking skills.’ It appeared that Mammon and Samael remained unconvinced. ‘Yet you say her dreams are her own?’ ‘Yes.’ Araqiel eased himself into one of the stiff-backed chairs, waiting with barely contained trepidation for the council’s final decision. ‘Why would she dream of a Vampire she has never met?’ Samael asked. Araqiel concealed his grimace. He had not travelled the Ley-Lines to Purgatory to unfold the many layers of deceit he’d been hiding. He came to protect Elena. It was only by sheer luck that she’d so far avoided rape or death from the Alpha Vânator known as Roshan. There wasn’t much time. ‘Araqiel?’ ‘Yes, Samael?’ The goat-headed demon bristled, an irritated grunt escaping his whiskered mouth. ‘You heard me, Angel. Why dream of an unknown Vampire?’ ‘I thought you were speculating aloud.’ Mammon touched Samael’s shoulder and whispered in his twitching ear. Finally, they both turned back to the angel with unsettling hostility. ‘We’ll be looking into this.’ ‘How?’ ‘The usual channels.’ Araqiel’s trepidation melted as an idea bloomed, the whisper of a smile forming. He cleared his throat, feigning ignorance as he said, ‘Does that mean Samael will start following me around again?’ Nakir’s head snapped up, nostrils flaring. Munkar shoved an accusatory finger against Samael’s chest. ‘You left Purgatory?’ Samael paled, fur-tipped ears folding flat against his head, but his eyes flashed fiery crimson defiance at Araqiel. ‘Only once.’ ‘You are never to leave Purgatory! It is not the place of the council to choose sides!’ Munkar scolded. ‘We have others to do research on such matters.’ Samael grunted, flashing yellowed teeth. ‘We do what we must to maintain balance.’ ‘As do I,’ Araqiel reminded them. ‘And thus, I ask only to protect Elena. The balance in which I must maintain as darkness surrounds her. So in lieu of Samael’s clear violation, do I have the council’s permission to help her?’ ‘No,’ Samael rasped. Mammon took a steadying breath, a sulphuric emission filled with resignation. He squeezed Samael’s shoulder, calming his brutish counterpart. ‘You cannot use the Vampire William again,’ Mammon finally murmured. He shifted his gaze, levelling demonic eyes upon Araqiel. ‘You have forced him to help the girl twice now and we do not like that these encounters have weakened his darkness, encouraging sentimentality.’ ‘Agreed,’ Araqiel responded, knowing that William’s growing attachment was problematic. ‘I propose using Elena, giving her the power to communicate with Sebastian.’ Suspicion rode the demon’s features like a wild horse bucking at the gates of truth. ‘Why him, yet another Vampire?’ Araqiel squared his shoulders, giving nothing away. ‘Sebastian is the most capable of finding her before the Alpha wolf compromises her innocence.’ ‘She is not so innocent,’ Nakir whispered. ‘Her attraction to the Alpha is based on the blood that runs through her veins. Her soul does not wish to be with him in any capacity.’ ‘And you claim to know the desires of her soul?’ Mammon asked. Araqiel bowed his head, studying the curled fingers in his lap. ‘I may be one of the fallen, but I know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil.’ He looked up again, shifting dazzling sapphire eyes over all before him. ‘I can still feel a soul’s true desire. I am not completely without the grace of God.’ Mammon and Samael snickered. ‘Do I have permission, or not?’ Mammon sniffed, rubbing a sweaty palm over his face, erasing lingering delight. He gazed at Nakir and Munkar, then back at a snarling Samael. He sighed, shoulders slumping. ‘In light of the forbidden travel, we will vote in your favour.’ ‘No!’ Samael roared. Nakir and Munkar nodded. ‘As will we.’ Araqiel bowed his head once more, hiding a smile that begged claim over the corners of his supple lips. He rose, hesitant to shatter the fragility of this small victory by lingering. Who would have thought that the surreptitious behaviour of both angel and demon would broker the most favourable result? Turning to face the wind, Araqiel stretched his wings out behind him, the light from the three moons above filtering through the feathery surface in tiny shards of brilliance. Weightlessness claimed his limbs as the beat of his wings lifted his feet from the crispness of the stone pavers. ‘Araqiel?’ Mammon shouted, raspy voice calling the angel back. The whistling winds of Purgatory ceased blowing a gale through the nest of pert white feathers at his back. Had his deception been more clearly analysed? Araqiel faced Mammon. His pitchfork tail sashayed behind him with deliberate, hypnotic persuasion. ‘Yes?’ ‘I wish to ask you another question.’ Araqiel met with solid ground once more, curious despite the hint of anxiety knotting his shoulders. ‘Pray tell.’ More papers were shuffled by greasy fingers. Eye contact was never broken, intimidation undoubtedly the goal. ‘Do you know where the Archangel Michael is?’ ‘I … what?’ ‘It’s been two thousand years since he graced us with his presence,’ Mammon continued. ‘Nakir and Munkar cannot lie to us. They would have confirmed if he was back in Heaven.’ ‘And?’ ‘And he is not. Do you know where he is?’ Araqiel had been taught impartiality and encouraged to disregard emotion. Discussing Michael tampered with his neutrality. He may have been bound by the truth, but knowledge of Michael’s whereabouts was not Araqiel’s to impart. ‘I’m waiting, Araqiel.’ Mammon’s grubby fingers beat a steady rhythm upon the marble. ‘Yes. I know where Michael is.’ ‘Tell us.’ Araqiel shook his head. Lying was impossible, but he could dance around the truth. ‘I have answered your question.’ ‘Then where is he?’ Samael shouted, slamming his fist on the table. ‘At this precise moment, I do not know.’ Samael seethed, ears flapping back and forth. Both demons understood the rules and how to bend them, but their anger marred intelligent thought. They loitered on the precipice of revenge, determined to find Michael and punish him for imprisoning Lucifer in Hell. Asking the right questions would yield better results. ‘You would be rewarded for your answer, Araqiel,’ Samael continued, simmering down as he tried his hand at bribery. ‘As you served in Heaven, so you shall rule in Hell.’ Araqiel shuddered at the thought of fiery pits of tortured souls and slippery demons belching terminal disease and riotous blasphemy. ‘There is nothing you can offer me.’ Samael and Mammon conferred. Nakir and Munkar looked on vexingly. ‘Are you so sure about that?’ An evil glint appeared in Samael’s blood red eyes as the crooked slant of his tufted eyebrow reaped provocation. ‘Yes.’ Samael tsk tsked him, waggling a stiffened finger. ‘What if I offered you the Time Contract?’ Rigidity claimed Munkar and Nakir, surprise robbing words of protest free of their open mouths. ‘The Time Contract?’ Araqiel repeated in awe. ‘You cannot!’ Nakir finally gasped. ‘No, but my master Lucifer can.’ Araqiel’s stomach tightened. Only the two great masters of existence had the authority to present the Time Contract – God or Lucifer. Its power was known to reverse certain historical events or all that had come to pass, a fresh canvas, total annihilation. Knowing that the present could be reshaped by the choices of one chosen entity? Entirely too tempting. ‘Araqiel? What is your answer?’ Samael pressed. Araqiel closed his eyes, praying for absolution. The temptation of power hastened his prayers as he begged for the goodness still nurturing his soul to charter his plans to their end, to follow the right path where he would inevitably choose wrong. ‘I will give you Michael.’ ‘Araqiel!’ Nakir and Munkar shouted in unison. ‘He is your brother!’ Araqiel silenced the urge to lay the stirring sickness inside at his feet. Catching the congratulatory handshake the demons shared only served to exacerbate the twisting muscle and bile within. ‘Wait.’ ‘What is it?’ Mammon snapped. ‘You cannot change your mind now.’ ‘I said I will give you Michael, but it will be at my choosing.’ The self-righteous smiles faded. ‘Have the contract ready. No tricks, no ulterior motives. When the time is right I will make sure Michael returns to Purgatory for final judgment. In the meantime, I beg you all to protect Elena from harm.’ Araqiel ruffled his feathers, ready for flight. He needed distraction from his sweaty palms and mounting sickness. ‘I bid you all farewell.’ ‘I want Michael dead within three months,’ Samael persisted. ‘He has been hiding on the earth plane for far too long.’ Araqiel acknowledged the request with a quick tip of his head, bent his knees and kicked off the pavement. His wings stretched behind him, a feathered shield, strong and sleek. They flapped with purpose, taking him higher and higher until the air grew cold, just like his heart. As Araqiel kissed the frigid atmosphere to meet with the soft glow of the three moons and intersecting Ley-Lines, he bowed his head. Once more he prayed for understanding, trust and the gratification of answered litanies. There was only one problem. God had not answered him in a very long time.