Will she finally destroy the one thing she risked eternity to possess?
| The old man, Xavier, dug around the tulips, and placed them on his tray while Vivianca brushed her golden bangs over her horns. Once they receded, she stepped into view.
"The root is the heart of the plant. If you love a flower, Mija," The old man, not looking up, smiled at her approach. "You will take pains not to sever it."
She suppressed a shudder at the accusation. "Santiago will catch you."
Her lips curled at the door to the office. The dastard Santiago had turned his own partner in for immigration, and threatened Xavier with the same. "You know what that means."
"I defy him but little. They are done with tulips for the season."
Vivianca winced at her vision of Santiago, hacking apart the helpless flowers before having Xavier removed. "Say the word. He's earned a place in the pit."
The gardener gave Vivianca a sad smile. "Do not trouble yourself, Viv."
"But you love this country as much as you love your flowers." The horns on her head strained to cut through the inside of her forehead. She leaned forward. "I must have your consent, if I am to act in your behest."
The old man nodded.
"So easy, for me, to have him taken out."
He put his hand on her wrist. "That would not help."
She frowned, and dug her talons into his cart. "It's not right."
"Gardens in Mexico need tending, too, my dear."
"I'll do it for free. For justice." She lowered her voice, leaned in. "Strike him down, one errant soul for another."
"I appreciate your solidarity, Vivianca, but please. Let him be."
Vivianca nodded, glaring at the ground. "He does not deserve your faith."
"Love does not measure worthiness. It only reveals and nurtures it."
Roughly two days before the event:
Shariel fluffed his fiery wings and raised his eyebrow. "Is that sarcasm?"
Vivianca shook her head. "No. They are amazing creatures, especially the ones in my collection."
Surprise fluttered over the angel's features. "Never let Lucifer hear you say that." Shariel regained his smirk.
"He agrees. Don't get me wrong: they're not worthy of worship—quite."
"Keep telling yourself that, sister." He looked down at Ryan, in his apartment. "Ask me, you chose the wrong side."
Vivianca followed Shariel's gaze.
Ryan scraped the untouched macaroni and cheese into the trash.
Refusing her every gift, as he should. So noble, such a worthy opponent. No doubt he planned to prepare himself the same dish. Still, the madness of their game had to wear on him. One day, he would forget, and think his part the crazy bit. That day, her patience would pay off. "Free will is everything, Shariel."
She shivered. If they knew the liberties she took... "You know, there's no going back."
"The Father's mercy is beyond measure."
"I've heard. Lucifer could use someone with your loyalty, you know."
Shariel scoffed. "He's trying the radio you disabled. That's your cue."
From the empty air, Vivianca plucked a purplish black violin. She checked her reflection in it to see that her horns showed. Still bruisey purple-black, like her fingernails and her violin, the two thorns on her forehead reached just over her golden hairline. "How do I look?"
Shariel raised his eyebrows. "Stunning, as always."
"Thanks, brother." She drew the bow across the strings, a long, sultry note. As it played, she stepped down through the roof and floated onto Ryan's counter.
Detective Ryan smiled in relief. A second later, he suppressed his pleasure.
Nevertheless, Vivianca recognized her victory. Only rarely would his error be so blatant. The discipline of a man like officer Ryan, a modern-day paladin, did not simply break, but would only slip. Normally it would resemble the smooth lines of his graying goatee, its sharp boundaries leaving everything exactly in place. She smirked for an instant, throwing herself into the music again.
"Very clever." He opened a cupboard and pulled out a box of pasta and a jar of spaghetti sauce. "How did you bring Fluffy back to life, after four years?"
"Michelle's so scared, she won't even answer the phone."
At the thought of Ryan's girlfriend screaming in terror, Vivianca's horns tingled. She regretted only that the woman recovered. "I'm sorry, Ryan." Vivianca had not, actually; a local boy had bartered for lessons in black magic. She simply found the boy some books to steal, and showed him where to dig. She refused to admit any guilt, attending instead to her bow gliding across the strings, describing the endless centuries of isolation in the smooth, curling notes of the violin.
Ryan pulled out his pan, and set it on the counter.
Vivianca suppressed a smirk of recognition at his emotional strategy. Good soldier, play like you're not upset. "Usually, people want to see their beloved pets, even years later."
Ryan rolled his eyes and slammed down the pot. "Not as a walking skeleton."
"You saw her with her voodoo friends."
"Michelle couldn't conjure a lucky charm from a box of cereal." Ryan shook his head. "She was no threat."
That's where you're wrong. Michelle offered a lifeline to Ryan, one Vivianca needed to cut. She could not rest until she cut him off from all rivals, from his potential girlfriend, from his neighbors and coworkers, even from the television and radio. The violin filled the room with the essence of Vivianca's despair and rejection, reassuring him--as she would wish--that she stood with him in his suffering. Her voice purred, "I must admit, it is more intimate, just you and me. Something wrong with the macaroni and cheese I made you?"
He harrumphed. "Can't take a gift. Not from you."
She raised an eyebrow in mock confusion. "Like my advice when I show you where to find a rampant soul?"
"Can't turn from an innocent in need." He frowned at his pasta.
"Surely, there's no immediate harm, in indulging once or twice?"
Ryan poured the macaroni into the cold water, then ran his hands through his soft, swept back halo of hair. "None at all, if you don't mind fraternizing with the enemy."
"We both work on the side of justice."
"These are souls, Vivianca: people, not collector's cards." Ryan put the pan on the stove and turned on the heat. "I wish I could get you to see that."
Usurpers. Arrogant little beasts that think they are the image of the Father. It isn't fair! Her anger flared, and it took all she had not to throw a tantrum in the face of her quarry. Then, as she looked down on him, she fought off the urge to grab him up in her arms. In moments like that, Ryan did so remind her of the King of Heaven that she had lost, in the fall from grace—her literal Father. The souls in her menagerie should have been nothing more than a collection, something to trade and to brag about, but she found herself ever so protective of them. "I get that. I do."
He stopped wiping the counter and looked up at her. The flat curve of his lips belied the hint of crows feet, a squint in his seasoned, gray eyes. "Almost think you meant that."
She suppressed her pleasure at this hint of approval, a dangerous sentiment. She felt herself slipping, but enough of that. Now was the time to flatter, even if it held more truth than lie. "Something about you makes me think humans might be worth the fuss."
He coughed a laugh. "Yeah. I could get to liking you, too. If you weren't devoted to the entrapment of my people." He took a bottle of root beer from the fridge and walked to his recliner.
She breathed easier. "That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."
His expression softened into a smile. "Don't get used to it."
A request, anything, would be a major concession, an opening. She could make him hers. One day, he would give. She had to give him time, and opportunity. "Is there anything that you'd like me to play?"
He ignored her, flipped the switch on the dead television, and leaned back, staring at the blank screen.
He tickled her with the stubborn pretense. He had to know she would sabotage the television, this emblem of normalcy, so like his relationship with Michelle. A man like him could keep up this game only so long before playing into her arms. Though he would not speak his request, she could answer his wishes. Deep in his soul, she read the notes he longed to hear, and from deep inside her spirit, the talent rose up to overwhelm her, and give them voice--serenading him, making arduous love to the god-thing her demon heart ached to possess.
Three Hours Later:
"You're getting too close to him. You know that." The red faced demon, Siraine, rested his sharp chin on her shoulder.
Irritated, she turned away from the red golden glow of the sunset, and pushed Siraine away. "Fool, begone. I have my ways."
"Dangerous, getting them to like you." Siraine walked through the bench and sat down. "We're not concerned with the antics of a few escaped souls."
"You're not —" Vivianca glared at him, shaken. Her plan, to help this Paladin protect innocents from the rampant souls had been a stroke of genius, advanced the justice of Lucifer even as it drew Ryan into their conspiracy. Sure, fallen angels reveled in the carnage caused by rampant souls on the lam from the pits, but the ultimate purpose was to bring every one of them in, to Lucifer's domain. Random violence had a way of working against the cause, inspiring heroism and sending untried innocents into the Father's domain. "Excuse me?"
"They don't do nearly the damage Ryan does."
"When he falls, he'll take plenty with him."
"Will he?" Siraine scoffed, his red skin pulsing green. "You've no idea. That virus, hope, plagues them, blinds their eyes to our work. Every life this fool touches slips away."
A nagging sense wrapped about her like a constrictor snake in her collar. "You're making too much of it."
"Three days. Bring him in, or take him down, child." Siraine wiped the sweat from his hat band. "Doesn't matter how."
She stood up and knelt on the bench. "You have no authority —"
"This order puts you on containment." Siraine sniffed and showed her a scroll. "I can make it go away, if Ryan also goes away."
A twinge of fear entered her. "My menagerie—"
"Your souls have been put to proper punishment." Siraine puffed up, his eyes sparkling green for a second. "I could just as easily put you in containment, as well."
Treating a devil like a common mudspark? The idea seemed like something Shariel would suggest, demeaning to all of their kind. "You would never."
"I have dispensation. From the top."
"Lucifer approved ... ?"
He coughed out a laugh and shook his head. "Farther up."
Vivianca did not consider who Siraine might be speaking of; nobody could be above Lucifer. "Are you working for the wrong side?"
Siraine leaned in close to her, such that the smoke of his breath stained her nose green. "I don't know what you stepped in. Both sides are taking an interest. Better let this one go."
He laughed, a hearty ho-ho-ho. "That's what makes you the best. I love to see the good ones fall in the dirt."
"Maybe I did take the wrong side."
He tipped his stove-pipe hat and patted her knee. "Plum dumpling, I would love to hear you say that again."
Vivianca's fingers tingled as her fingernails grew into talons. How she had always longed to bite into this one. She would relish dragging him down with her. No matter his age and power, he could not resist her. She regretted knowing that the fight would doom Ryan. She dropped her chin in submission.
Siraine shook his head, stuck out his lower lip in a pout. "Would have been a glorious battle, child." He tipped his hat and disappeared in a minty green puff of smoke.
Hot, waxy tears left plum-colored trails on her palms as she looked up between sobs. She recalled her argument with the magister. Even then she knew there would be a price, but did not believe the academic sharp enough to find her menagerie. They had taken everything from her, her home, her bastion of strength. She could not bear to return to the pit without her souls to keep her up. If Ryan fell in battle, he would return to the Father. She would never see another like him. If he fell to her charms, she would have time, the rest of his mortal life at least, to plan a safe place to hide him. Seventy two hours would not give her time for a proper endgame. She would have to improvise. Fortunately, lesser men fall quickly into line with her plans.
Thirty hours later:
Ryan's 1977 Coronet shimmied as he drove further into the night, and his head nodded of its own will. Already he had been driving twelve hours straight, with as few breaks as possible.
Vivianca gently guided his hand, back into his lane. "No, Ryan. You have to stay awake."
"I can't do it. I have to pull over."
Viv smiled. This could be easier than she thought. "Let me take the wheel. I won't do anything evil."
"N-no," he stammered, unable to get his tongue to work. "Ah, I am not going to invite you into my soul."
"I thought pride was a sin."
"Don't split hairs. Pride is a feeling. Feeling good about being faithful isn't a sin though it can segue into them."
Vivianca faked surprise. "Tell me more."
"You know it better than any human, Vivianca."
She played with his hair, caressed his scalp with the wicked tips of her talons. "You need something to keep you awake."
He gripped the wheel and released. "You sure I really need to drive straight through?"
"The consequences, if we don't get this done in time, are unthinkable." Not even a lie. Hm. I don't think I've ever lied to this one. How about that?
"Unthinkable for whom?" Ryan said.
"My permission to guide you, like I have been, is wearing out."
He shrugged. "So I would have to investigate."
That's right, stay sharp. That would be no loss to him; the exorcist would have had the same effect. Vivianca nodded. "No more ravens to guide your way. Just have to follow the bloodbaths."
Ryan shook his head and closed one eye. "If it be God's will, He will show me my path."
She brushed his shoulder and ran her fingers through his hair. "You have such a strength of will. You could still be a good person, still do the Father's work, without your direct line to Heaven."
"I belong to Heaven."
"Perhaps you could sacrifice eternity to save a few more innocents."
"Sleep deprivation is one of the stages of brainwashing, but I'm not there yet."
She pursed her lips. She didn't want him being confiscated like the others. "There are other places to go than Heaven or Hell."
Ryan gave her a sharp look and started to drift off the road.
Vivianca jerked his hands back into place as the tires roared over the rumble strips. "You know, they told me to just kill you, let you go to Heaven now. But you're too precious. I need to preserve you."
"Flattered, I'm sure."
She growled. He made it sound so cheap. "It's—not like that."
The sun rose over the ocean as they neared the destination. After a long silence, Vivianca started with a whisper. "What would you say if I told you, there's about to be a major break. They intend to make a sacrifice that will bring back one thousand rampant souls." No such thing would be allowed to happen, but she never said it would.
"The carnage would be —"
"That's right. Ten rampant for every paladin and page."
"What do I have to do to stop them?" He pulled to a stop where the raven omen landed.
She pointed out a chapel on the beach. "That's where the sacrifice is slated to be made. Stop it, and their spell fails."
"This could be the greatest, most important victory of my career. Of anybody's career." Ryan took a deep breath. "Perhaps that's why the church wouldn't help me banish you."
Delight flashed across her features before Vivianca feigned shock. "You asked for an exorcism?"
"Right." He picked up the cane with the anointed sword in it. "Let's go make a call."
Vivianca wondered if she should warn him of what awaited in that church. It had never been a proper church. The pastor devoted his service to lies and dark doings. Not a diabolist's church, but something far more sinister: one that pretended to goodness. Ever devoted to the work of Lucifer, it had been easy to desecrate, with the help of the two foolish actors who waited inside. Wading in waves of Lucifer's Wrath, Ryan's soul would depart his body before it would walk in that chapel.
He rapped the door with his cane. "Hello! Anybody in there? This is the police."
"Do your worst, Defective Ryan," they taunted. "You're a thousand miles from your jurisdiction."
"So file a complaint." He shoved through the door.
He didn't get three steps in before he came running out of that room like a vampire running from a baptismal shower. He stumbled to his knees and started heaving.
"I'm sorry. You went in there so fast." She rested her hand on his shoulder.
"I don't understand."
She knelt down in front of him. "It's consecrated to Lucifer. You're not welcome—not as you are."
"There's an Unholy Wrath?"
She nodded. "And there's only one way for you to get in there. You must fall—or leap— from grace."
"I'll get help. It won't banish an ordinary man. Secular police would be able —"
"It's all I could do to get them to wait this long, Ryan. I told them the spell wouldn't work if you weren't there to watch, but now? Tick-tock."
"So, what's to be done? I can't change in an instant."
"Well, first, we should, ah, fraternize. Make a deal."
"Just shake your hand?"
"Well, yes, that could work." She put her hand on his chin and pulled it toward her face. "But I think there's something both of us would much prefer."
"You want to kiss me."
"I do. But it will only work if you desire me."
"You're the only woman that I've had in my house in ten years. So achingly beautiful, so forbidden."
"I'm here." Her black breath smelled of plums. "Kiss me, you fool."
He leaned in, and at the last moment, pulled away.
"Don't be shy. You know I've been yours, all along."
He brushed his lips against hers ever so gently, breathed deep the plum-scented incense of her soul.
"And with this, you choose me as your champion."
An unseen ripple between the three of them, Ryan, Shariel, and Vivianca, cut ties to the angel and left Vivianca in Shariel's place. He belonged to her, as she belonged to him. He could safely walk in the unholy places. "Now, go take them on, but be careful: they're not rampant."
Ryan stood up and leaned a bit more heavily on his cane than he had before.
Siraine slapped Vivianca on the back. "Excellent work, my plum dumpling." He pointed to the roof above, where two rampant souls sat.
"Shemhamforash!" The actors exclaimed, calling the rampant souls—and all the unholy power they wielded—into their devil-worshiping flesh.
Siraine took a swig from his bottle. The liquid screamed as he tasted it. "Ryan is ours now. And your actors have a little gift from me."
Ryan slipped away from her, whether to her Father or her master she didn't care. She ran halfway toward him. "No!"
Siraine tore up the letter. "We need your kind out here. Lucifer worried that you were about to rise. That's why we traded with the other side."
Desperation clawed at her. "Stop! Ryan, it's a trap. Oh, it's a trap."
Ryan turned to her, as the two actors rushed toward him.
Siraine laughed. "Ho, boy, are you in trouble. Nothing you can do but enjoy the bloodbath. Unless..." He looked upward, toward Shariel's place.
The golden flame of Shariel's wings dazzled Vivianca, and their heat burned at the horns on her forehead. Shariel led her across the clouds of his retreat. "Ryan chose you."
Vivianca's chest clenched, like the dark, burning pit where human souls belonged. "But, Shariel, you must! My brethren—if you don't deliver the Wrath, they're going ... to ..." Vivianca's breath sputtered black smoke.
Shariel glanced over his wings and shrugged.
She stopped, and opened her arms wide. "He is still a good man. He deserves Help."
Shariel's chin dropped as he turned to look at his fallen sister. "Defying your master to plead for a mortal? You really do love him." His fiery wings flapped, backing him away from her.
An odd question. She had wooed only the most beautiful souls, and never asked them to compromise that beauty for her. It had made her work challenging, but worthwhile. "Do you have to ask?"
His lips quirked toward a smile. "Then, you know what to do."
Her talons bit into her palms. This hardly seemed the time to be coy. "Find someone to deliver the Wrath. That's you."
Shariel shook his head. "A man has only one guardian, of his choice." His gaze landed on her, with a nod in her direction.
The insanity! Nothing good could come from that suggestion. "I don't understand. You—you're his guardian. What can I do?"
Shariel directed his eyes upward, toward their Father.
Something inside her shifted, and her feet started to slip beneath her. She wanted to grab the Wrath and carry it to him, to be the angel she should always have been, no matter the cost. "That would be suicide."
Shariel sighed. "If you love him, it will be worth it."
The hair on the back of her neck vibrated against the chill of his words. The Wrath burned her skin, the skin of any of Lucifer's army, even from this close to the Verge of Judgement. If she were to be so arrogant as to try, it could do no good. "I will be destroyed." Vivianca looked up at him, defying him to contradict her, contradict everything she had been told.
Shariel stared down his nose at her.
Sadness and compassion in his fiery golden eyes burned into her until she could not bear to look. Ryan had begged for help and been turned away, even by rogue exorcists, as if God himself had turned His back on the paladin. "This is why Ryan could not be rid of me. This moment."
"Ryan chose you, sister. His fate belongs to you."
How like a politician, reading from the approved message. Vivianca's little horns wept, dripping their hot purple wax down her forehead and in her eyes. She nodded. "When I call upon the Wrath, He will judge me. I will disappear before I can deliver His blessing to Ryan."
"That would be..." Shariel paused. "... not worth it."
How she hated Shariel, with his infernal insistence on obedience. She could see the desire, see him trying to rebel, trying to give her a hint. The angels pretended to care for the humans like she pretended to hate them. She wondered if she was the only one on either side that appreciated them. Now, Shariel's hard-line rules doomed Ryan more surely than her own devilish master ever would. "Please, Shariel, I beg of you, help me."
He shook his head, but smiled. "You've all the help I can give."
She searched that face for any sign that he cared, that he thought he should be able to do better. "No wonder they fall." Vivianca shook her fist at Shariel.
He put his fingers to his mouth, then said this. "Whatever you do, do not place your faith in luck. You alone know whether you should face Judgment for him."
"But, you could do this, couldn't you?"
He shook his head. "It pains me to see anyone tested like this." He pointed, palm up, toward the Verge of Judgment, a pearly white door in the clouds.
Vivianca gulped. She knew that, for angels and demons alike, time would wait all eternity for her decision. She could preserve her beloved mortal by staying in this moment, but that would only serve herself. Timelessness could not rescue those housed in human flesh, could not ease their suffering. She refused to look back upon her beloved Ryan. If any heart beat within her it would pound a hole in her chest. Instead, she approached the Verge of Judgment.
Shariel's voice softened. "Would you have me escort you?"
Vivianca looked into the doorway that formed the Verge of Judgment. The radiant heat seemed not so hostile now. Perhaps nothingness would be a gift, she realized, for both her and Ryan. Ryan could find another guardian after she had gone beyond. She shook her head.
He fluttered his wings. "I will wait on the far side." He disappeared in a rush of golden sparks.
Her voice coughed black smoke as she prayed, for the first time in centuries. "Please, Father, have mercy on Ryan. Spare me long enough to deliver him." She pushed through the door.
Fear, like none she ever imagined, pulsed through her. The father truly forbade her free will for a reason, a poison for angels more potent than all the worst drugs known to man. No spirit ever returned to Heaven. Would Lucifer tell you, if one had? The thought, a desperate fiction she offered herself, tore her worse than the bruisey black cloud of despair.
She pushed through the veil at the Verge into Heaven itself.
She felt at home in Heaven, as she never had anywhere else, yet the temptation to stay lasted for a split second.
Shariel stood, smirking. "Told you your prayer would be answered. The Father is Love; it is His Will within you, that urges you on."
"But where is the Wrath?"
"I deliver it."
She frowned. "But you said—"
"Not for Ryan. He rejected me. I'm your guardian."
Vivianca's jaw dropped. "But, how can I...?"
"Time has begun. Slow, but inexorable. Act quickly. Go now, and call upon me."
"Will I be destroyed?"
He shrugged. "You will not escape unscathed. Do you still wish to perform this final duty as an angel?"
"I—" She put her hand on her chest. Her life, a small price to pay. She nodded. "I do."
He indicated the ground with his gaze, so far below.
Vivianca jumped. She appeared inches above the ground, then fell to her knees with a thump. She didn't have time to process the strange feeling, but rose to her feet and raised her hands to the heavens. "I am ready. Purge the evil from among us!"
The clouds parted, and golden light struck her, raising plumes of black smoke from her flesh. The halo spread forward toward Ryan. The holy rays pierced the chapel, searing the two rampant souls, who screamed and ran out the back door.
Ryan ran to a payphone and dialed 911. "Help, I have a burn victim. Don't know what happened, just laying here on the beach."
Shariel's voice rang out of the receiver and carried to Vivianca's ear, a stone's throw away. "We have someone on the way. Have faith."
Ryan dropped the receiver. It fell to the ground, unattached, as he rushed to Vivianca's side. "Hang in there. Help is on the way." He grabbed her hand, and looked down on her.
Her lips hurt to smile up at the man, all in one beautiful piece. Her throat burned as she whispered, "They were going to tear you apart."
"I saw. What happened?"
Her hands had turned to bleeding, purplish black soot; her face felt the same. "I had to go Home." Her lips split with every word, blood warming her chin.
"Don't speak. Help is on the way."
Needing her final moments to be in his company, she gripped him, hand and wrist, and with burned hands, pulled him close. Her voice rasped, "Thank you. I am sorry. I love you. Forgive me."
Ryan's tears sizzled on her cheek. "No, don't do that. We'll get you patched up."
Just then, the ambulance pulled onto the sand. Shariel, in the body of a human, pulled out the stretcher and rolled her onto it. "We have just the place for this kind of injury."
Ryan and Shariel eased her, stretcher and all, off the sand. As the shadow of the ambulance rolled over her eyelids, the driver flipped a switch.
Shariel spoke. "Change of plan. We've got to go to the church."
The man in the driver's seat shook his head. "I'll lose my--"
"Evander, remember your oath. That's more than a medevac job."
The man in the driver's seat shook his head. "I can't. It's not right."
Vivianca's burning, watery eyes could not hold the image of the stately young man's dread locks. She should be able to sense Shariel's essence on the man, but everything burned with the wrathful acid of divine judgment. Not truly caring if Evander were some new paladin, or an assassin in Lucifer's employ, she laid back and closed her eyes on fate.
Shariel put his hand on the young man's shoulder. "Evander, do you want to help her?"
Evander flipped the switch again, and eased the ambulance into motion.
They pulled into a local church and wheeled Vivianca up to the altar. Ryan's pastor stood there.
Ryan smiled on the man. "You? We're a thousand miles from—"
"The angels have my number, too." The fat old pastor nodded to Shariel, and stumbled as he hobbled over to the bed. Finally, he pulled out a bottle.
Ryan grabbed his arm. "You can't! That's holy water."
Shariel grinned. "Does every paladin on the planet have to forget the idea of having faith on this day?"
Ryan backed away a bit. "You're sure it won't hurt her?"
Vivianca's voice hissed, barely audible. "If Father wants me gone, so be it. He answered my prayer."
"Bless you, my child." The pastor sprinkled her with the water. "Vivianca, in the name of the Father, I christen you."
The cracks sealed, or at least felt whole, though the charred plates on her skin remained. Vivianca took a breath, careful at first, then deep. She brushed the pastor's wrist with her fingertips. "Thank you."
Ryan beckoned the pastor away. "One other thing. I stepped out of grace. I need to atone."
The pastor's eyes smiled at that. "No, Ryan. We have a different sacrament in mind."
"I don't understand."
The pastor's eyes danced. "Far be it from me to explain the birds and the bees."
Ryan looked at him, and at Vivianca, and shrugged.
"Surely you'll want the Good Lord to bless your union."
Ryan's eyes squinted, as if dazzled by the dawning of glorious news. "You mean, we can—with His blessing?"
"If you trust Shariel." The pastor looked to be sure that the flask he was about to drink from was the right one. "He'd like to be your best man, since you've rejected him as your guardian."
"You're my angel?" Ryan blinked at Shariel and shook his head. "I thought I recognized you."
At the door, just beyond the threshold, the red and green Siraine leered upon Vivianca's weakened form, and her friends.
She felt like a turkey on the table, and her friends no better than calves for Siraine's next meal. Vivianca tried to hiss out a shriek of warning and pointed at the door.
Sirraine smiled and tipped his hat, which sizzled and smoked as it brushed against the wall of divine Wrath. "Don't worry, Plum Dumpling."
Shariel raised his fist. "You've a lot of nerve."
Siraine raised up his palms and waved his hands in surrender. "Ooh, not at all. Just wanted to see the girl that beat the system."
Vivianca trembled to look upon the venom in Siraine's eyes, a passion beyond the value of angels or devils, but only souls. What could she have done to have earned such envy? She bit at her purple-black talons.
Ryan pulled the sword from his cane and stood in front of Vivianca. "Begone, in the name of..."
The pastor grabbed Ryan's shoulder, a look of fear on his face.
"Stop, Ryan! Don't." Vivianca coughed. "You're not...."
Siraine's eyes went wide, as he shook his head in jolly disbelief. "Never thought I'd see the day." He patted the flames and walked away, hat in hand, and disappeared in a puff of minty green smoke.