This short story was published by Daikaijuzine in June of 2010. I was looking out the car window at some clouds and they looked like mountains. I imagined an angel with black wings standing atop those mountains and thus this story was born.
The breathless heat grows no cooler as I climb, but at least on the mountain I have not the bones of the lost to look upon. Only gray rock around me, endless sky above. There is some fragment of a memory taunting me from the edges of my mind, but it keeps itself well out of reach.
And through it all, I feel her presence, close, waiting. I turn a corner and there she is. She stands with her back to me, black wings stark in the sunlight, staring out across the vast desert that was so long the entirety of my world. Somewhere far away is a shimmer that might be water, or merely illusion.
“Do you know where you are?” she asks.
I lick my dry, cracked lips, uncertain if words can pass through. “No.”
“This is the end of the world.”
I blink, my eyes thick with grit. “I don’t understand.”
She turns to face me, eyes blue as the sky, clear yet somehow clouded. She’s familiar yet not, like a faded photograph of a place you were before you were old enough to hold onto the memory. “No one ever made it to the mountain before. You’re the first.”
“Why me?” I ask. “I only walked, I don’t even know how this started.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re here, that’s my only concern.”
“Who are you?”
She sighs. “You humans, always needing to place a name on a thing as if that will help you better understand it’s nature. If you must call me something, call me Angel, for that is how you
“Are you? An angel, I mean.”
“Hardly.” She steps past me. “Enough of this, we have much to do and precious little time in which to do it.”
She walks and I follow, no less confused.
She doesn’t even hesitate as we reach the far edge of the mountain, she merely steps out into the thin air, takes several steps, disappears.
I stand where I am, stunned, unsure of what I should do.
Her head and a single arm reappear. “What are you waiting for?”
I blink, having trouble believing my own eyes, and stutter something unintelligible.
“Enough,” she says. “Believe what you do, not what you see.”
I take a breath, then step one foot out into nothing, expecting to lose my balance and fall. Instead, my foot stops as if I had struck solid ground. So I take the risk and bring my left foot out to meet the right.
The world falls away to the ground far below, but I am suspended in midair like a tightrope walker without the rope. And without a net, should the laws of gravity choose to right themselves.
I take a few steps and find myself standing in a cave. I turn around and behind me is a stone wall. Curious, I reach out to touch the wall, expecting my hand to pass through. It doesn’t. The wall is as solid as any I have ever touched.
“Stop playing,” Angel calls from up ahead.
I stare at my hand, at the wall, then I turn and run to catch up to her.
A cave should be dark, I would think, but this one has plenty of light, though the source is a mystery. Walking beside Angel, I burn to ask questions but I hold silent. I’m afraid of her answers.
I fear this is Hell and she my guide through it, though I can’t think of anything I may have done to warrant such a fate.
The sight I see before me drives all other thoughts from my mind. A colossal cavern heaping with gold, jewels, and treasure beyond naming.
“What is this?” I ask.
“A test of a sort.” Angel never takes her eyes from my face. “You need to find something for me.”
“I don’t know.”
She will say no more than this and so I wonder in among the riches. Part of me wants to wade into the gold hip deep like a river, scoop the jewels up in my arms let them fall like spring showers, go wild.
But another part sees this with the eyes of a child and remembers stories where such places deceive you with their shine and sparkle, only to ensnare you with your own greed. If this truly is Hell, there may be fire and brimstone waiting below the surface.
I turn to speak to Angel, only to find myself alone. I thought I stayed what looked to be the main path, but it seems I must have strayed for now there is no path at all. My chest tightens, my heart jumps. Is this to be my punishment for some crime I can’t remember?
I stop and hold still, trying to grip my pinwheeling emotions. I see one treasure among many and not something I would normally give a second look. But I’m drawn to it all the same.
Strange black symbols tattoo a silver bladed sword leaning against a gold chest. The symbols dance at my approach and I’m mesmerized for reasons beyond my understanding.
I think I should be afraid of this thing, but I’m not. I reach out, wrap my hands around the hilt. The sword is much lighter than its appearance suggests and it feels good in my hands. There is a rightness to it somehow, it seems more real than the treasure surrounding it.
“You may regret that choice sooner than you think.”
I turn to find Angel standing behind me. “What choice? I only wanted a closer look.”
She stares silently at the sword for a moment, then looks at me. “Time to go.”
I expected a return to mountain when we passed back through the wall of the cave, instead I find myself in a tropical forest, tall trees towering overhead. The sun is warm, but not painfully so, and the air is filled with the scent of flowers. This is most certainly not Hell. Could it be I was mistaken about the nature of my dark Angel? I’m more confused than ever.
We move deeper into the forest. Here the stillness is absolute, not a breathe of wind, not a single insect chirrup. Yet, it’s not an oppressive silence, but a peaceful one, as if all the world is whole and content. I feel myself begin to relax as we walk. Perhaps things are not so grim as I feared.
In the middle of this amazonian forest, lies a pristine lake, water the bluest I’ve ever seen, softly reflecting the cotton ball clouds above. To the west, a rocky mountain waterfall, rainbows dancing in the spray.
“What are you waiting for?” Angel asks.
I sense she wants me to approach the lake, though I can’t imagine what for.
My reflection is sharp in the still water. The symbols on the sword shift, first slowly, then picking up speed. My reflection doesn’t ripple as the point of the sword touches the water, but seems instead to grow sharper, as if it were the real me and the me on the shore was the reflection.
The symbols melt down the blade, staining the water red. The color spreads, first engulfing my reflection, than that of the clouds. The sky grows dark as the wind picks up, chill.
I pull the sword back, but it’s too late.
Red flows up the waterfall in reverse, wiping out the rainbows. The rock crumbles, landing in the water with terrible splashing and crashing. The wind howls, pushing me back from the water’s edge.
I turn and Angel is staring at me, black hair dancing around her face, blue eyes bright. If this is what she wants of me and this evil sword I would sooner find myself in that Hell my soul so fears.
Throwing down the sword, I run into the forest. Tees bend back from the force of the wind, leaves swirl, all black now. I run blindly, heart pounding in my head, no idea where I’m going. All I know is that I want to get away. Away from the sword, away from Angel, away from this place. Maybe even away from myself.
Breaking free of the dying forest, I skid to a halt. Angel stands before me, gazing at me calmly as though I shouldn’t be surprised to see her there with endless miles of yellow grass behind her. The sword lies at her feet.
My chest is tight, my stomach sick. The sword looks evil lying there, a blade with teeth. I take it in my hand, hating the rightness of it, hating the feeling of power it gives. A power I don’t want.
Without a word, Angel turns and walks through the tall grass. I follow, the shrieking of the wind fading behind us.
There is no darkness like the darkness of a starless night. I longed for such a night as I made my way across the desert, now I fear what monsters it might bring. I have the sword, but it offers no comfort. A dark thing cannot fend off the shadows.
My eyes grow heavy and as I drift into sleep, images come to me. Faded, blurred, they come, bringing only more confusion with them.
A city in the rain, a splash of blood on my shoe. But the images are distorted, warped almost beyond recognition and they soon leave me.
I wake to Angel’s voice speaking my name. Things have changed during my sleep, the sky has cleared and grown stars, silver dots on black velvet.
“Come with me,” Angel says.
I follow her to the top of a hill and together we gaze up at the stars. It’s beautiful, all these brilliant sparks of luminance twinkling on into infinity. There is no moon that I can see, but all the world is bright with cold light.
The symbols on the sword begin to dance. I know this, though I refuse to take my eyes from the sky. I can feel them.
I lift the sword from my shoulder unwillingly, as if I am no longer in control of my body. As it was by the lake. Holding the sword in both hands, I point the blade toward the sky.
The stars shiver, their light growing in intensity until it’s unbearable to look at them. Then they begin to fall. The sound is akin to thunder but worse, a thousand bombs exploding. Amber light replaces the silver glow, streaking Angel’s face.
Stars dash to the earth around the hill, making the ground tremble until it feels as though it will tear apart at the seams. I am crying, wanting to stop this thing, knowing I can’t.
The sword falls from my numb hands and still the stars die.
When it’s over, there is only silence and the lingering glow of amber light. The sky above is cold now, vacant, dead.
Angel leaves me to myself. Once my tears are cried dry, I pick up the sword and follow.
Dawn comes broken and gray. We walk. Angel is silent, but I sense anxiety in the set of her shoulders, in the slight tremble of her wings. I can’t imagine what she has to worry over, I’m the one who’s trapped in this nightmare.
Beyond the hill lies a sparse, flat land and, away on the not too distant horizon, a city. A city of tall buildings, skyscrapers maybe, by the judge of the outline. Though I can’t imagine what sort of people might inhabit this place.
I try not to focus on this city as we draw near. It’s seems wrong somehow, and not only because it stands here amidst all this emptiness. There’s something else, a distortion, a feeling of misplacement, as if it ought to be in another place, maybe another time.
A flash comes to me. Once again, that city in the rain, but this time I’m not alone. There’s a woman there, she reminds me of Angel in a way, but she’s not. No wings for one thing, a lacking of darkness for another.
She points toward the sky, speaking words that I can’t hear. She shakes her head. Then a pain comes into her eyes, she reaches for me. The memory slips before I can get a proper grasp on it.
As I dreamed while walking, we have come up to stand in the shadow of the city. It’s cold.
Angel turns to face me. “This is the end, time to make your choice.”
I stare back of her, not understanding.
“Come now, no time to waste,” she says. “Will you choose the fire or the rain?”
The symbols on the sword are dancing again. I lift it from my shoulder and stare at the blade, seeing myself reflected in its shining surface. But there is a kind of shadow on my face and behind me, flames.
I close my eyes as the memory overpowers me.
The city is New York, the skyscrapers rising high all around us. I stand on the sidewalk with Michelle as the storm clouds darken overhead. She shivers, so I give her my coat though she would refuse. She smiles, so beautiful. Dark hair, bright eyes, she is my world.
The thunder rumbles and the rain begins to fall.
Michelle laughs, refusing to stand under cover though we must look like fools. She points toward the sky. “What’s that?”
I follow the line of her arm and see a shape there, something with wings. “A bird?”
Michelle shakes her head.
The creature circles overhead and a flash of lightning reveals it to be not a bird, but a person, a person with black wings. An angel, is my only thought.
The ground trembles as the dark day is lit with crimson light.
Balls of fire fall from the sky, the sound of breaking glass close. Michelle turns, pain in her eyes, and reaches for me.
I catch her as she falls, blood dripping on my shoes.
The memory goes and I open my eyes. Angel is still standing there, looking at me, the city behind here reminds me of New York, but isn’t.
“Make your choice, now,” she says.
For the first time in all this long journey I feel myself completely in control, my body is mine again. The sword waits on me, to do with as I choose. To become something else, something beyond this battered body that begins to feel pain, that is what Angel offers. To let loose my humanity and walk in her world.
I lower the sword and strike.
Her eyes grow wide in a face so like Michelle’s, but twisted, dark. The blood that flows from her wound is black like the symbols on the sword, it stains the ground. She stumbles toward me, breath shallow, but I make no move to catch her. By the time she reaches the earth, the life has gone from her eyes.
And as I stand over her, sword in hand, the rain begins to fall.