Flesh and Bone (Benny Imura #3) The Girl You Left Behind (The Girl You Left Behind #1)

My throat had closed up on itself. What little courage I had left was draining out of me as fast as the familiar dread was rolling in.

If you come with me, the Adder shouted, her voice—and shape—decidedly feminine, then no one gets hurt!No thank you, Safi thought, flinging up her sword. This woman was weaponless, and Safi was not. She flung up her sword.

Shadow Kiss (Vampire Academy #3)

I’m giving you one chance, Truthwitch! You can either join the Marstoks as an ally or you can die as our enemy!Safi almost laughed at that. A dark, angry laugh, for here was the moment she’d spent her whole life waiting for: the moment when her witchery put a target on her forehead and soldiers came to claim her.Admittedly she’d excpected Hell-Bards all these years, but Adders would more than suffice.

Entice Me at Twilight (Doomsday Brethren #4)

Safi sank into her stance, ready to attack. Lightning burst. She blinked—she couldn’t help it—and, by the time she got her eyes wide, wind was slashing into her. Rain piercing her. And, of course, the woman was no longer weaponless. Where heartbeats before her hands had been empty, there was now a flail, its iron ball the size of Safi’s skull.Where the rut did that come from? Safi muttered. And are those spikes on that ball? She skipped back—though the wind would hardly let her move—and briefly considered if Carawen steel was strong enough to slice through iron.

She decided it wasn’t—right as the spiky mass of death flew at her head.

Safi ducked sideways. The flail zoomed past her forehead. A single barb slashed across her skin. Blood gushed into her eyes, and for the smallest fraction of a moment, the contract’s words blazed behind her eyeballs: All negotiations will terminate should the passenger spill any blood.I lean forward to tap his shoulder. As I do, I glimpse the rest of his face in the rearview mirror. The red meat of his gums and cheeks is clearly visible. It’s like half of his face has been skinned off of him. His teeth sit exposed like he’s a living skeleton. His eyes stare straight at me in the mirror. He’s watching my reaction. I freeze. I want to jerk back, but he’s watching me. His eyes are not those of a monster. They are the eyes of a man who expects yet another person to cringe and pull away from him. I bite my lip to keep from making a sound. My hand still hovers above his shoulder. I hesitate for two breaths, then gently put my hand on his shoulder to tap him. ‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘Can you hear me?’ I continue to look at him in the mirror to let him know that I saw his face. His shoulder feels solid, the way a shoulder should feel. That’s a relief, both for me and for him. He’s probably not some new ghoul that the angels have created, but a regular man they injured. At first, I think he’ll continue to ignore me. But then he nods, slightly. I hesitate, wondering if I should ignore the elephant in the car or if I should ask him what happened to his face. From spending time with my sister’s friends, I know that people with disabilities sometimes wish others would simply ask and get it over with, while other times, they want to be treated normally and not have their disability define them. I choose to get on with business. ‘Where are we going?’ I keep my voice as friendly and casual as I can. He says nothing. ‘You’ve got the wrong girl, you know. Lots of people have weapons. Just because I had a sword doesn’t mean I’m the girl the angels are looking for.’ He continues to drive. ‘Okay, I get it. But do you really believe the angels will give you safe passage? Even if they don’t kill you today, how will you know they won’t kill you next week? It’s not like every angel will get a notification with your picture that says you’ve captured the girl they wanted.’ The big band music continues to fill the car, and he keeps on driving. ‘What’s your name?’ No response. ‘Do you think you could slow down a little? Maybe a lot? Maybe even stop for just a teensy second and let me out? There’s been a mistake. I don’t belong here. Come to think of it, neither do you.’ ‘Where do I belong then?’ His voice is harsh and full of anger. It’s hard to understand him. I guess it’s not easy to talk when your lips have been ripped off. It takes me a minute to translate what I heard. I have more experience than most in figuring out what someone with a speech impediment is saying. Paige had a couple of friends with disabilities that kept them from communicating easily. It was her patience with her friends and her translations that finally allowed me to start understanding them. Now it’s second nature. ‘You belong with us,’ I say. ‘The human race.’ Isn’t this what Raffe’s been saying all along? That I belong with the human race and he doesn’t? I push that thought away. The driver glances up at the mirror in surprise. He didn’t expect me to understand him. He probably spoke just to scare me off with his otherness. His eyes narrow as though he’s wondering if I’m playing a trick on him. ‘The human race doesn’t want me anymore.’ He watches me as if suspecting that I just got lucky in understanding him last time. He eerily says the things that Raffe won’t say about himself and his own situation. Does Raffe think of himself as this deformed in the eyes of angels? ‘You look human to me.’ ‘Then you must be blind,’ he says angrily. ‘Everyone else screams when they see me. If I drove off, where would I go? Who would I call my own? Even my own mother would run from me now.’ There’s a world of sadness behind his angry voice. ‘No, she wouldn’t.’ Mine wouldn’t. ‘Besides, if you think you’re the ugliest thing I’ve seen this week, boy, do you have a lot to learn about what’s going on out there.’ He gives me a glance in the mirror. ‘Sorry. You’re not even in the league, frankly. You’ll just have to settle for being classified as perfectly human like the rest of us.’ ‘You’ve seen people more horrible than me?’ ‘Oh, heck yeah. I’ve seen people that would make you run and scream. And one of them is a friend of mine. She’s sweet and kind, and I miss her. But Clara’s back with her family, and that’s the best I can wish for her these days.’ ‘Her people took her back in?’ There’s disbelief in his voice but hope in his eyes. ‘It took a little coaxing, but not much. They love her, and that goes beyond what’s on the outside. Anyway, where are we going?’ ‘Why should I tell you? You’re just pretending to be friendly to get me to do what you want. Then you’ll run off to your friends and tell them what a freak I was. That I actually believed you might not be repulsed by me.’ ‘Get over yourself. We’re all in danger. We all need to work together and help each other if we can.’ That sounded a little too much like Obi. Maybe the twins are right and we do have something in common. ‘Besides, I haven’t asked you to do anything yet. I’m only asking for information.’ He assesses me through the mirror. ‘We’re going to the new aerie in Half Moon Bay.’ ‘And then what?’ ‘And then we hand you over to the angels. The New Dawn members can collect their bounty – assuming the angels are in a generous mood – and I get to continue living.’ ‘All at the mercy of our invaders.’ ‘Do you want to know what happened to my face?’ I don’t. It doesn’t seem like a story I want to hear. ‘They ripped it off for fun. Half my face. Skinned alive, I guess. It was the most excruciating thing I could ever have imagined. In fact, I couldn’t even imagine it before. You know what it’s like to have your life changed like that? One moment, you’re normal, the next, you’re a monster freak? Do you know that I used to be an actor?’ He snorts. ‘Yeah, I made my living off my charming smile. Now I don’t even have lips to smile with.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ I can’t think of anything else to say. ‘Look, I know it’s been hard.’ ‘You have no idea.’

‘You’d be surprised. Just because I don’t have a problem on the outside visible for the world to see doesn’t mean I’m not messed up on the inside. That can be just as hard to deal with.’ ‘Spare me your self-centered teen angst. What you feel is nothing compared to what I feel.’ ‘Gee, okay,’ I say. ‘You’re not at all wallowing in self-centeredness. I see that now.’ ‘Listen, kid. I haven’t talked to anyone in weeks. I thought I missed it, but now you’ve reminded me that I really don’t.’ The music fills the car with old-world style before he speaks again. ‘Why should I help you when no one bothers to help me?’ ‘Because you’re a decent human being.’ ‘Yeah, one that wants to live. If I let you go, they’ll come down and kill me.’ ‘If you don’t let me go, you won’t feel quite so human anymore. Being human isn’t about whether you fit in or look like the rest of us. It’s about who you are and what you’re willing to do or not do.’ ‘Humans kill all the time.’ ‘Not decent ones.’ Outside, the deserted world slides by. I guess no one wants to go near the new aerie. Word must have gotten around about that apocalypse party. ‘Did you really kill an angel?’ he asks. ‘Yeah.’ I’ve killed two. ‘You’re the only one I’ve met who has. What happens if I let you go?’ ‘I return to my family and try to keep us all alive.’ ‘Everybody? You’d try to keep all of us alive?’ ‘I meant my family. That’s hard enough. How would I even begin to keep everyone alive?’ ‘If the only one who can kill an angel can’t do it, then who can?’ It’s a good question, one that takes me a minute to come up with an answer. ‘Obadiah West can. Him and his freedom fighters. I’m just a teenager.’ ‘History is filled with teenagers who lead the fight. Joan of Arc. Okita Soji, the samurai. Alexander the Great. They were all teenagers when they began leading their armies. I think we’re back to those times again, kid.’ 27 We weave sedately through the abandoned cars on the road. Occasionally, I see people scurrying away when they spot our car. It must be a strange sight, seeing a luxury caravan cruising down the road. Not that everybody hasn’t already picked an expensive car to try out, but that phase mostly ended in the first couple of weeks. After that, it was all about keeping a low profile. The miles pass as I try to figure out how and when my escape should happen. We’re moving too fast for me to jump out of the car. Just as I decide that I won’t be able to make a run for it, we slow to a stop. There’s a roadblock of cars up ahead. At first glance, it looks like a mutated, multi-angled scarab grown to fill the entire road. The cars are artfully laid out to make it seem as if it were happenstance, but my intuition tells me it’s probably tactical. My driver reaches down and pulls up a pistol. I don’t have my sword on me, so I’m on my own. I casually check the back door to see if I could make a run for it. But before I can make a move, men with guns emerge from behind the cars. Homemade tattoos are scrawled across their necks, faces, and hands. A street gang. They come at us with bats and tire irons. One of them swings a tire iron into the windshield with a thunderous slam that makes me jump in my seat. The glass turns white with a million cracks around the impact area but leaves the rest intact. Baseball bats pound on the hood and doors. The gang spreads out to attack the other cars. The shiny perfection of our antique Rolls-Royce is turning into a demolition derby car. The passenger window of the car in front of us rolls down before the men can reach it. The black barrel of an Uzi submachine gun sticks out of it. I duck my head just as the gunfire begins. The rat-tat-tat of the Uzi is deafening even with my palms against my ears. When it stops a few seconds later, all I can hear is the ringing in my ears. A train could be rolling by outside my window and I wouldn’t know it right now. I peek my head up to see what’s going on. Two cult members with shaved heads and sheet dresses – one man, one woman – stand beside our car, holding matching Uzis and scanning the area. Three men lie bleeding on the road. One fell beside a spontaneous roadside memorial. These street shrines have cropped up all over since the Great Attack. Photos of lost loved ones, dried flowers, stuffed animals, handwritten notes pouring out words of love and loss. Fresh blood glistens on a framed photo of a smiling girl with a missing front tooth. I had always assumed the roadside memorials were for people who died because of angels. Now I wonder how many of them died because of other people. The other attackers are nowhere to be seen. After a few seconds, the cult members hop into the two largest cars in the roadblock. They drive slowly into the dead cars, shoving them out of the way like tanks to create a path for us. When they finish, they jump back into their classic cars, and we keep driving. By the time we arrive at the aerie, I can feel the fear rolling off the driver. He’s more afraid than I am, which is saying a lot. We pull up to the side of the hotel’s main building. It looks more like a country estate than a hotel, with its sprawling mansion, golf course, and large circular driveway. There are guards posted there, looking official. My stomach turns icy at the thought of being in this place again. The last two times I was here, I barely got out alive. The cars stop, and the cult members get out. One of them opens my door like a chauffeur, as if he expects me to step out like a lady attending a party. I slide to the far side of the car and crouch in the corner. It’s pointless to run with so many angels, but I don’t have to make it easy for them. I kick the guy who leans in to pull me out. Now they’re starting to look embarrassed as well as scared. Eventually, though, they open the door I’m leaning against and drag me out kicking and screaming. It takes four of them to do it, and I’m glad to see that my driver is not one of them. The guy holding me is trembling, and I don’t think it’s because he’s afraid of me. Whatever it is their new religion tells them about the angels, they must know that they’re violent and merciless. ‘We’ve brought the girl to be exchanged for your promise of safety,’ says Tan Head. The guards assess me. Their eyes look like they were chiseled out of stone – emotionless and alien. The feathers on their wings ruffle in the breeze.One of them motions for us to follow him to the main entrance. ‘You can either walk or we can drug you and drag you there,’ says Tan Head. I put my hands up in defeat. They let me go but stand only an inch away, blocking my path in every direction but toward the aerie. We walk along the circular driveway to the main entrance, with every angel posted on the rooftop and balconies watching us. We stop in front of the double glass doors. One of the guards goes inside. We wait in silence under the predatory gaze of far too many warriors. The cult people rush to the trunk of one of the cars and heft the sword out. It takes two of them to drag it across the driveway toward us. Then the glass doors open, and several angels come outside. One of the newcomers is Uriel’s footman, the one who helped him get ready for the last party. The men bow deeply to the angels. ‘We’ve brought the girl as promised, masters.’ The angel lackey nods at the guards who then grab my arms. When they lay the sword in front of Uriel’s footman, he says, ‘Kneel.’ The men kneel in front of him like prisoners awaiting execution. The angel marks their foreheads with a black smear. ‘This will ensure your safety from angels. None of us shall harm you so long as you have this mark.’ ‘And the rest of our loyal group?’ asks Tan Head, looking up at the angel. ‘Bring them to us. We’ll mark the rest of you. Let it be known that we can be generous to those who serve us.’ ‘Let it be known that they tore apart their last set of servants,’ I say to the cult members. The men glance at me fearfully, looking worried. I wonder if they knew about the massacre that happened here. The angels ignore me. ‘Continue the good work, and perhaps we’ll allow you to serve us in heaven.’ The men try to bow deeper, pressing themselves onto the ground. ‘It is our honor to serve the masters.’ I would make a gagging noise if I wasn’t so scared. They shove me into the building. My sword scrapes the pavement as an angel drags it behind us. 28 Inside, the lobby is crowded and roaring with noise, every inch of standing space bursting with angels. Either they’ve all come indoors or their numbers have swelled overnight. They must be gathered for the election. That would explain the angel host we’d seen flying this way. The crowd parts to let me through. It must be the sound of the sword dragging behind me that catches everyone’s attention. They all stare as we pass. I feel like a witch being paraded through town. I guess I’m lucky they’re not throwing rotten tomatoes at me. Instead of going into a room, they take me through the building and out onto the lawn where the massacre happened. They’re putting me on display for all angels to see. There are still patches of dried blood on the terrace. Apparently, there’s no one left to clean up after them anymore. The place is a mess. Confetti and costumes litter the ground, and for some reason, the grass is churned up like an army had randomly gone through it with shovels. Signs have sprouted up over the lawn. The last time I was here, there was only one booth, but now there are booths everywhere. They seem to be grouped in threes – red, blue, and green. I can’t read the symbols on the colored banners, but I recognize Uriel’s from when Raffe pointed it out to me. His is the red banner. The other two banners in each booth cluster are azure blue with symbols that are curved lines and dots and misty green with dashed lines that flow both thick and thin. Even though I can’t read them, I like them better than Uriel’s, which is all angles and screaming in red. Angels fly all over the sky and walk over the lawn that used to be a golf course. They begin gathering around the colored banners, looking like distinct teams. Many of the angels are chanting, ‘Uriel! Uriel! Uriel!’ near the red-bannered booths like they’re at a football game. The second largest group gathers around the misty green booths and shouts, ‘Michael! Michael! Michael!’ And a few others collect around the azure blue booths and begin shouting, ‘Raphael! Raphael! Raphael!’ Most of the angels mill around in the sky or between the booths, as if they’re still deciding. But as Raffe’s supporters keep chanting, more soldiers join them and begin shouting his name. I’m so surprised that I stumble to a stop in the middle of the lawn. My guards have to shove me to get me to go again. ‘Raphael! Raphael! Raphael!’ I hope he’s somewhere nearby, hearing his people shouting his name. He belongs here. That thought echoes through my mind because I still have a hard time believing it. Angels are not meant to be alone, and he’s been alone for far too long. Does he dream about this? To have his wings again and be welcomed back into the host? To lead his soldiers and be part of his tribe again? ‘Raphael! Raphael! Raphael!’ Of course he does. Isn’t that what he’s been telling me all this time? He belongs with them and not with me. I wonder if he has his angel wings back yet. Is he just on the verge of getting everything he wants? On the verge of going back to his world? I throw the rest of my thoughts into the vault in my head and lean as hard as I can to close the door. I don’t quite succeed. That’s been happening a lot lately. A brawl breaks out at the cluster of booths to my right. Some take to the air. Others grapple on the ground. Angels who had been meandering on the lawn fly over to watch the fight. Four warriors battle against a dozen while spectators cheer. No one uses his sword. This is apparently more of a contest than an angry fight. The smaller group tosses the other angels around like rag dolls. The brawl is over in seconds. When the last one is pinned to the ground with another warrior sitting on top of him, the winner shouts, ‘Raphael! First vote goes to Archangel Raphael!’ The four winning warriors jump up with their arms raised in victory and scream into the air. And I realize something. Despite Raffe’s supporters being outnumbered, they are the toughest, fiercest, most skilled fighters. Then, almost immediately, the spectator angels congregate at another cluster of booths. Another fight is beginning there. Within seconds, the next round is determined as someone shouts, ‘Michael! Second vote goes to Archangel Michael!’ The crowd cheers. It’s pure chaos, but somehow everyone seems to know the rules. I’m guessing the winning team of each fight wins a vote for their favorite candidate. The archangel with the most number of winning fights must win the election. So their election isn’t just about the number of people behind you, it’s a matter of having the best fighters behind you.

The One (The Selection #3)

My guards shove me forward, but they’re not even looking at me. They’re watching the crazed winged warriors as they perform their version of an election. Some of the angels have what looks like blood smeared across their faces like war paint. Others snarl as they fly past each other over broken plates and crushed champagne glasses. Those who are still wearing dinner jackets from the last party rip them off their shoulders, tearing the seams along the fabric. They’ve stopped pretending to be civilized and are letting their inner barbarians out. No wonder Uriel has to go to such extreme sliminess. Raffe and Michael are warriors with armies of fighters loyal to them. Uriel is just a politician and probably wouldn’t stand a chance unless he offered something like a legendary apocalypse as a treat for crazed, bloodthirsty warriors. Being the only human in the center of all this violence makes me feel like my fate is sealed. I probably have until the end of the voting before they kill me. I wonder how long that will be. By the time my guards shove me through the chaos and up onto the raised stage, my insides are trembling and I’m fighting to keep my legs moving. I’m surrounded by a sea of frenzied angels, and I can’t see a way out. 29 So far, it’s a surprisingly close election. Surprising in that Uriel has been campaigning for so long, and Raffe and Michael haven’t even been here. ‘I hate to interrupt the festivities,’ shouts Uriel from up in the air, ‘but this is something worth seeing.’ He floats down to the stage at the edge of the lawn. My guards drag me up the steps to meet him. Angels climb the steps on the other side, dragging two huge cages crammed full of thumping and screeching hellions. Another group of angels climbs up with a third cage between them. In among the ugly hellions thrashing behind the bars is Beliel. I haven’t seen him since Angel Island. It looks like partnering up with the hellions hasn’t worked out for him. The dried-up demon holds on to the bars with his shriveled hands. He looks around, assessing the assembled host. Uriel faces the crowd. ‘Before you decide which candidate to fight for, I have two pieces of crucial information you may want to consider.’ He sounds as though he’s impartial to this whole affair. ‘First, we have found hellions skulking about far too close to the aerie,’ says Uriel. ‘Certainly we can expect them in a hellhole like earth, but I’d like you to take a close look at these two in particular.’ Two angels step forward, each holding a spotted hellion they’ve extracted from a cage. They are considerably larger, and they fight and thrash more fiercely than the others. ‘These are not one of the local breeds,’ says Uriel. ‘Take a good look at them. These hellions emerged straight from the Pit.’ And so they did. I recognize them as the ones who followed me from Beliel’s hell. The angels fall silent. ‘You may remember that we exterminated this cunning species – wiped them out from every known world to be rid of their intense ferocity and their nasty habit of organizing the others,’ says Uriel. ‘The only place they could still exist is in the Pit.’ His eyes sweep the crowd. ‘We all know that nothing leaves the Pit without being let out. The hellions who infest this world have become puny and stupid. These, however, are fresh from their hellish homeland and are being led by this demon.’ He points to Beliel. Beliel is still not healed, although he has patches of pink skin beginning to grow on his face. He looks horrible, like he’s been ravaged by a designer disease. His skin is still crusty and withered, but now it’s split by fresh pink strips of new skin. His back is bleeding, as if his body is having particular trouble healing from the severed wings. ‘Somewhere, gates have been opened to the Pit,’ says Uriel. ‘Somewhere, the beast lurks and is letting out his creatures. Somewhere, the apocalypse is starting without us.’ He pauses. ‘As I have promised in the past – and I continue to promise today – elect me now, and by morning, you will be a legendary warrior for the apocalypse. Raphael is absent. Michael is absent. If you elect one of them as Messenger, the glory of the apocalypse might be over by the time they lead you into battle. You might already be dead by then, or worse, perhaps you’ll be saggy, out of shape, and unprepared. You never know. It could happen.’ A dutiful chuckle goes through the crowd. ‘The second thing I’d like to present,’ says Uriel, ‘is the girl.’ My guards shove me onto center stage. ‘If you’ve just arrived, I thank you for traveling such a great distance to participate in the election. Many of you were not present during the fight on the beach when one of ours was slain by this Daughter of Man. But I know you’ve all heard the story by now. I’m here to tell you that it’s all true. This human girl – as puny as she seems – somehow managed to convince an angel sword to allow her to wield it.’ Uriel pauses for effect. ‘Even more astonishingly, she used the sword to kill one of our own.’ He lets that sink in. I notice that he doesn’t say anything about my sword commanding theirs to stand down. If only they knew that the sword that dominated their weapons is called Pooky Bear. ‘I captured her with utmost speed and have brought her to justice. It’s time we avenge our fallen brother.’ The crowd cheers. 30 ‘Uriel murdered Archangel Gabriel!’ I point my finger at Uriel. ‘He’s making up a false apocalypse so he can become the new Messenger!’ The crowd quiets down. I don’t for a second think that they believe me. But I’m guessing that I’m entertaining enough for them to listen to, for now anyway. ‘At least investigate if you don’t believe me.’ Uriel chuckles. ‘The Pit is too good a punishment for her. She should be torn apart by hellions. How convenient that we have some.’ ‘I don’t even get a sham trial? What kind of justice is that?’ I know this won’t get me very far, but right now, I’m too amped to keep my mouth shut. Uriel raises his eyebrows. ‘That’s an idea. Shall we give her a trial?’ To my surprise, the angels take up the chant. ‘Trial! Trial! Trial!’ The way they’re saying it makes it sound like Romans at a stadium, demanding the death of a gladiator. Uriel puts out his hands to quiet the crowd. ‘A trial it is.’ I’m suddenly not so excited about getting a trial.My guards shove me. I stumble forward and climb down from the stage. They push me until I’m in the middle of what used to be the golf course. I rotate around, realizing that I am at the center of a large circle of angels. The circle quickly becomes a dome as angel bodies fill in the space all around and above me. The sun becomes blotted out by layers of bodies and wings. I’m in a living dome with no way out. A breach opens up in the wall of bodies. Through it, the hellions get tossed my way. They flap around, trying to find a way out, but there are no gaps in the dome. Everyone is chanting. ‘Trial! Trial! Trial!’ Somehow I don’t think their idea of a trial and my idea of a trial are the same. The last hellion cage that gets poured into the domed arena is Beliel’s. As he spills onto the ground, he looks up at Uriel, snarling. For a second, he looks angry and betrayed. Fear peeks through before he puts on his sneer again. His declaration of always being alone and unwanted seems to be proven over and over again. For an instant, I forget what a horrible being he is and I feel a flash of sympathy for him. He walks into the center of the dome, at first stumbling and unsure, then with more confidence and even outright defiance. The angels cheer like he’s their favorite football player in a championship game. I suspect hardly any of them even know who he is. I know who he is and what happened to him, and I barely even recognize him. The hellions are scrambling in a mad panic. They bounce from one edge of the dome to the other, frantically trying to find a gap between bodies. ‘What kind of a trial is this?’ I ask, suspecting the answer. ‘A warrior’s trial,’ says Uriel as he flies above me. ‘It’s more than you deserve. The rule is simple. The last one alive goes free.’ The crowd cheers again, roaring their approval. ‘Try to make this entertaining,’ says Uriel. ‘Because if it’s not, the crowd will decide whether the last one standing lives or dies.’ The angels chant, ‘Die! Die! Die!’ I guess that answers the question. I have no idea if the hellions understand the rules, but they screech and try to attack the wall of warriors. The angels grab one and throw it down onto the ground where it lies dazed and shaking its head. The other angels roar at the hellions as they approach. The beasts pause in midair and back away. ‘Hellions,’ says Uriel. ‘One of you gets to live.’ He puts up an index finger for emphasis. ‘You must kill the others.’ He points to everyone else. He speaks slowly and loudly, as if speaking to a befuddled dog. ‘Kill!’ He points to me. The hellions all look my way. I step back without thinking. What am I supposed to do? I back into the hard body of an angel who is part of the living arena. He bends down and growls into my ear. I look around frantically for an escape as the hellions begin flying toward me. Amazingly, I see my sword lying on the ground between me and the oncoming hellions. I’m sure that was no accident. They want to see the Daughter of Man slaughter hellions with an angel sword. I race for the sword as fast as I can. I grab it off the ground, roll to manage my momentum, and begin swinging my blade even as I jump to my feet again. I slice just as the first hellion reaches me. It screeches as blood gushes out of its belly. Without thinking, I swing at the second one that comes at me. It’s so close I can smell its rotting-flesh breath. It swerves, and I miss by an inch. I steady myself and take a solid stance. During the next couple of swings, I calm down and let the sword take over. This is easy for her. Pooky Bear has killed thousands of these things. Walk in the park. Only the things aren’t behaving the way the sword is used to. The two from the Pit make their hyena noises, calling to the others. The others pause, listening, then they start circling me. They hover, just out of reach of my blade. I spin around, trying to see them all, unsure of what’s happening. In the meantime, Beliel is backing away – I can see him out of the corner of my eye. He grabs a hellion and snaps the neck as if it were a chicken. He silently drops the body and grabs the next one nearest him. The others are all focused on me. All except the spotted hellions from the Pit. They look smarter, craftier, and they watch him with intelligent eyes. Beliel isn’t trying to save me, I know that. He’s just killing off as many as he can while they have me as a distraction. Then, by the time they’re finished with me, he’ll only have a few to contend with. That’s okay. I don’t need him to be my friend, so long as he’s killing off my enemies. The spotted hellions make their hyena calls again, and the others fly to include Beliel in the circle. Then they tighten their flight pattern, corralling us. Beliel and I are forced to back up until we’re as close to each other as we can stand. Obviously, neither of us likes it, but for now, the bigger threat to both of us is the hellions, and we have to make a choice to either stand alone or fight together. We decide simultaneously and step back-to-back against our enemies. Together, we can now see all of the hellions coming at us. I have to count on Beliel needing me to survive for as long as possible. We both know that if we succeed in killing off the hellions, it’ll be me against him, but for now, it’s us against them. The hellions hesitate like none of them wants to go first. Then one dives in at us. Beliel catches it. Another dives in while Beliel is occupied snapping the neck of the first hellion. I shift and slice through it. Two more come at us. Then four. Then six. I swing my blade as fast as I can and am surprised at how fast that is. Pooky Bear is working overtime. She’s almost a blur. She’s wielding me, not the other way around. My job is to keep a steady stance and point her in the right direction. If even one of them gets past the sword, it’s game over. That thought puts a little zest in my swing, slicing three of them in one completion of a figure eight. One across the throat, another across the chest, the third across the belly. The best part is that two of the injured are thrashing in midair, blocking the others from getting too close. My back prickles with vulnerability, but I just have to trust that Beliel is holding up his end of the fight. Our biggest advantage right now is that the hellions are getting in each other’s way. There’s not enough room for all of them to rush us. Since I have a weapon and Beliel does not, I take more than half our circle. I swing from side to side, taking on as many hellions as I can. But I can’t cover my back. If Beliel goes down, I’ll be following him soon thereafter.

He holds his own, though, even without a weapon. His strength is fierce, his fury fiercer as he snaps, kicks, and punches at the hellions. Beliel and I kill off the last two local hellions while the two from the Pit hover and watch. We deliver our final blows at the same time – I slice through one, and he snaps the neck of the other. Beliel then backs off, stepping away from me, leaving a clear opening for the remaining two hellions from the Pit. But there are only two of them left, and although they’re clever, they can’t surround me. They don’t even try. Instead, they fly to Beliel – slow and unthreatening. They chirp at him. They point their monkey fingers at me, look at Beliel, and nod. They’re offering to ally with him to take me out. I take a couple of steps back with my sword raised. I want as much time as possible to react to whatever is about to go down. Beliel may have been my fighting partner for a few minutes, but these hellions freed him from our chains on Angel Island. He nods to the hellions. There’s no glee in it, just a grim determination to survive. At least I can take some pride in knowing that he assessed me as the greater threat over these Pit hellions. The two bat-faced uglies circle around – one above me and one to the side – while Beliel walks forward to stand just out of reach. Perfect position to charge me head-on as soon as I’m distracted. If both the hellions had stayed at my level, I could have swung in a circle and kept all three of them at bay. But with one above, I can only cover two directions and be vulnerable to the third. Before I can work out a strategy, teeth and claws come at me from above and to my right. Beliel holds back, forcing my move. I swing my blade up first at the one diving on me, then circle it around for the one attacking me from my side. At the same time, I’m sure that Beliel will leap on me. But he doesn’t. He feints as if he’s going to dive on me, but he holds back. At the same time, the hellions pull back just as they get into my cutting range. I still manage to slice one across the torso and the other across the face, but neither is a killing blow. Beliel chuckles as I go back to my ready stance. They all had tried to double-cross each other. If they all had dived on me, I would be dead. But if one had betrayed the others by feinting an attack, then I would have probably killed one and maybe injured the other. The one who betrayed the others would have had the best chance of being the only survivor. But now they all know that no one can be trusted. Their alliance is over. The two Pit hellions fly up in opposite directions as far as the angel dome will let them. They’ve figured out that if they stay up there, Beliel and I will have to fight it out on the ground. One of us will die, and the other will be tired and easier to kill. Beliel curls his lip in distaste. ‘Outmaneuvered by hellions and threatened by a scrawny Daughter of Man. Insult upon insult.’ We get ready to face off, Beliel and I. 31 ‘Stop!’ Everyone turns to see who shouted that command. The tone is almost irresistible. I keep one eye on Beliel while trying to see what’s going on. Blood drips down into my eye, and I have to blink several times before I see what everyone else sees. There’s now a gap in the dome letting the light in. A pair of large snowy wings glides through, blocking out the sun. Raffe’s perfect form comes into view. He is both the Raffe I know and a terrifying stranger. He looks like a pissed-off demigod. I’ve only glimpsed him once in this perfect angel form. His wings are magnificent as they sweep the air behind him – white against blue. The angels all stare at Raffe. They hover, silent and still except for the slow beating of wings. A whisper echoes through the winged crowd: Archangel Raphael. ‘I hear there’s an unsanctioned election going on,’ says Raffe. ‘There’s nothing unsanctioned about it,’ says Uriel. ‘And if you had been here, you’d know that. In fact, you are one of the candidates.’ ‘Really? And how am I doing?’ A couple of angels yell out in support of Raffe. ‘You’ve been away too long, Raphael.’ Uriel raises his voice to address the rest of the angels. ‘He’s too out of touch to lead the greatest battle in history. Does he even know that the legendary apocalypse is about to begin?’ ‘You mean the one you artificially created out of your lies and parlor tricks?’ Raffe addresses the angels too. ‘He’s been lying to you all. Fabricating monsters and manufacturing events to pressure you into a quick and dirty election.’ ‘He’s the one lying,’ says Uriel. ‘I can prove that I was meant to be the chosen archangel.’ He raises his arms to the crowd. ‘God spoke to me.’ The crowd bursts into a low roar as everyone begins talking at once. ‘That’s right,’ says Uriel. ‘I am already the Messenger in His eyes. God spoke to me and told me He has chosen me to lead the great apocalypse. I waited to tell you because I know that it’s shocking. But I have no choice now that Raphael has come back, trying to challenge God’s will. ‘How many signs do we need before you’re convinced that the End of Days is happening without us? How much of it are you willing to miss because we don’t have an elected Messenger to lead you into battle? Do not allow Raphael to keep you from the glory that is rightfully yours!’ The angels closest to Uriel open their mouths wide and begin what I can only call singing. But it’s not a song with words, just a melody. It’s a gorgeous, holy sound that’s so unexpected from these bloodthirsty warriors. The beautiful sound ripples through parts of the crowd as a dozen heavenly voices join the chorus throughout the dome. Then a group of angels shifts out of the way, letting in a beam of sunlight. The light hits a spot just beside Uriel. He subtly shifts into it so that he glows. His face splits into a genuine grin. If nothing else, Uriel is certainly a good showman. Then he lowers his arms and bows humbly. There’s something about the ray of light shining off his head and shoulders, the way he bows, the way he quietly holds himself that implies that he’s communing with God. It makes me hold my breath. Everyone else must feel it too, because there’s a hushed expectancy. When he lifts his head, he says, ‘God just spoke to me. He says the End of Days begins now.’ He sweeps his arms like a conductor. A crash hits the cliff at the end of the golf course. I assume it’s a huge wave, but I can’t see it with all the angels blocking my way. Then they all turn to look, and I can see the beach through the spaces between their bodies.‘So you claim,’ says Raffe. ‘But the election isn’t complete.’ He turns to the angels. ‘It’s quite a string of coincidences, isn’t it? Messenger Gabriel being killed without telling anyone why we’re here. Uriel being the only archangel available for the election. Every time there’s any doubt, another apocalyptic monster appears as a sign.’ Raffe looks at Uriel. ‘How convenient for you, Uri. Yes. I agree to a trial by contest.’ Angels nod and echo. ‘Trial by contest.’ As in winner takes all and is declared to be telling the truth? What are we, living in the Middle Ages? Uriel sweeps his gaze over the crowd. ‘Fine,’ says Uriel. ‘So be it. I call Sacriel as my second.’ Everyone looks to the largest angel in the group and his enormous wings. ‘I accept,’ he says. Raffe looks at the angels, gauging them. Who is loyal enough to back him as his second? There were angels who voted for him, but voting for him and dying for him are two very different things. ‘I’m flattered that you need the biggest, meanest warrior on your side to best me, Uri. Let’s see, how big a warrior do I need as a second to beat you and Sacriel? Hmm . . . I’ll take . . . the Daughter of Man. She should even out the odds.’ Angels laugh. I stand on the churned-up ground, stunned. Uriel’s lips purse. ‘You still think everything is a joke, don’t you?’ Uriel spits out his words. He definitely doesn’t like being laughed at. ‘Have your fun now, Raphael, because she’ll be the only one to follow you when you fall. Perhaps you’ve forgotten that you don’t have your Watchers anymore.’ Uriel gives me a knowing look. I can tell that he knows Raffe didn’t just pick me as a joke. ‘You have until sunrise to collect your team before we meet to decide on the contest.’ He flies out of the crowd with his usual entourage following in a burst of fluttering wings. The angels buzz with excitement as the crowd dissolves toward the main building of the aerie. A few of Uriel’s guards corral the two remaining hellions and stuff them back into their cage. They also lock Beliel in with them. But they leave me alone on the field. It must be because I’m Raffe’s second, whatever that means. I roll my shoulders, trying to ease the tension. Raffe glides down to me. His snowy wings are wide and frame his statuesque body perfectly. The edges of his feathers are downy, giving him a soft glow in the light. I still can’t believe he has his wings back. They look amazing on him. Perfect in every way, except for the notch that I cut out of his wing when I first met him. I assume the feathers will grow back in over time, and all traces of me will disappear off him. I want to say something about his wings and thank him for keeping me alive, but I don’t want to be overheard. I can tell that he sees it all in my eyes anyway, just as I can see him wondering how the heck I got here. I suppose I have a special talent for showing up where I shouldn’t be. As the last of the angels fly away, Josiah lands beside Raffe. His unnaturally white skin matches Raffe’s feathers. ‘Well, that was an unexpected choice for a second,’ says Josiah, watching Raffe with his red eyes. Raffe gives him a grim expression. ‘What are the chances that we can recruit a decent team?’ ‘Very low,’ says Josiah. ‘Whether they back him or not, too many are convinced Uriel will win. If he does, he’ll make sure that anyone who opposes him will fall, and no one wants to risk that.’ Raffe’s shoulders slump. He must be exhausted after the operation. ‘How are you feeling?’ I ask. ‘Like I flew on my wings a month before I should have.’ He takes a deep breath and lets it out. ‘Nothing I haven’t done before.’ ‘How many will Uriel have on his team?’ I ask. ‘A hundred maybe?’ says Josiah. ‘A hundred?’ I ask. ‘Against the two of us?’ ‘You’re not actually going to be fighting,’ says Raffe. ‘No one expects it.’ ‘Oh, so a hundred against just you. Why do you have a second if you’re supposed to have a team with you?’ ‘It’s traditionally meant to make sure that no one stands alone,’ says Josiah. He glances at Raffe with sympathy. ‘No one declines the honor of being second, but it’s completely optional as to whether someone joins a team for a trial by contest.’ Seeing pity in Josiah’s eyes makes me want to kick something. Raffe helped me, but now I can’t help him. A girl who can’t fly can’t play in angel games. I look at the cages on the field. The two remaining hellions are attacking each other and fighting around Beliel. They probably would have shoved me in there too if Raffe hadn’t named me his second. How long would I last in there? ‘Uriel’s right,’ says Raffe. ‘I don’t have my Watchers anymore. I can’t count on anyone stepping into their duties.’ ‘The warriors still talk about them, you know,’ says Josiah. ‘No group has come close to being the elite fighting team that the Watchers were. They’ve become legend.’ He shakes his head. ‘What a waste. And all because of—’ He looks at me with some hostility in his eyes and bites off whatever insult he was going to call Daughters of Men. ‘Don’t blame the women for the angels breaking your own stupid rules. Their women didn’t even break any rules, but they got punished anyway.’ ‘The Watchers would still be here if it weren’t for the Daughters of Men,’ says Josiah. ‘We lost our most elite group of warriors because they married your kind. The least you can do is have the decency to—’ ‘Enough,’ says Raffe. ‘The Watchers are gone and arguing about whose fault it is won’t bring them back. The only question left is, can we find a substitute?’ ‘Where are they now?’ I suspect they’re still in the Pit, but who knows? I think what I saw in Beliel’s memory was from a long time ago. They both glance at Beliel. He’s swatting at the hellions who are squabbling near his shoulder. They fly away from him to hang on to the bars and stare at us. No, not at us. At my sword. The Pit hellions want to go home. However bad it was there, it had to have been better than being caged, waiting to be killed. Home. ‘What if we could go into the Pit and get the Watchers?’ I ask.

It’s an insane thought, one I wouldn’t consider if the entire human race didn’t depend on it. If Raffe could dethrone Uriel, then no more war, right? The guys glance at each other as if wondering whether I’ve lost my mind. ‘No one voluntarily goes into the Pit,’ says Raffe, scowling at me. ‘And once you’re in, you don’t get out without being let out by the Pit lords,’ says Josiah. ‘That’s the problem with the Pit. Otherwise, newly Fallen angels would be rescued left and right.’ ‘Besides,’ says Raffe, looking at Beliel. ‘The Watchers aren’t what they used to be.’ ‘What if we could get the Watchers you remember?’ I ask. I nod toward Beliel. ‘The Watchers he remembers?’ Raffe looks back at me, and I see a spark of interest. 34 We half drag, half fly Beliel’s cage off the torn grass toward an outer building that’s out of sight of the main hotel. ‘Do we have any reason to believe it’ll work both ways?’ asks Josiah. ‘I was hoping you guys would know,’ I say. ‘There are ancient stories of hellions jumping out through very powerful swords,’ says Raffe. ‘But there’s never been a reason to jump into the Pit.’ ‘You mean to tell me that I discovered a talent of your beloved swords that even you guys didn’t know about?’ I pull as hard as I can on the cage bars. ‘You seem to bring out new and unimagined dimensions from both me and Kooky Bear.’ ‘Pooky Bear.’ ‘Right.’ I step over a hole that someone must have crawled out of. ‘Come on. Say it, Raffe.’ I give him a half smile. ‘I love it when you say Pooky Bear. It’s just so perfect when it comes out of your mouth.’ ‘She might kill you in your sleep one of these days just so she can get rid of that name.’ ‘Can’t she have a new name now that she can be with you again?’ ‘You were her last solo wielder, so she’s stuck with the name until she gets a new solo wielder.’ I keep expecting him to ask for his sword now that he has his angel wings back, but he hasn’t. I wonder if he’s still annoyed with her for showing me his private moments. I can feel Pooky Bear’s yearning to be held by him, but I don’t say anything. This is one fight I should stay out of. We set the cage down behind the outer building. It’s quiet and deserted here. Josiah shakes his head but is no longer arguing against the idea. He’s right. We all agree that it’s a terrible plan. But when Raffe asked him to come up with a less terrible idea, he didn’t have one. Now that it’s time, my hands tremble as I pull out the sword. My mind searches frantically for a better plan, but I can’t think of one. We could run away now that Raffe has his wings. But he’s on trial as much as I am. They won’t just let us fly out of here. If Raffe loses this trial, I die. I’m not sure what will happen to him, but it’s clear what will happen to me. But if Raffe could win this trial by contest and take control of the angels, he’ll take them away. And it’ll all end. Is it worth the risk of losing Raffe to the Pit and having him trapped there? I bite my lip, not willing to answer that question. I’ll probably pace a ten-foot-deep trench in front of this cage while waiting for him to come back. ‘Do it,’ says Raffe. His wings are closed tightly along his back, and he stands rigid, ready for the worst. Before I can get sappy, I nod to Josiah. He unlocks the cage door, and it swings open with a creak. The two hellions from the Pit back as far away from Josiah as they can. Hopefully, they know how to use the sword to get back to their world. We just need to catch one for Raffe to ride on. Beliel also backs away to the far end of the cage, looking like a shriveled zombie. ‘What are you doing?’ He watches us suspiciously. ‘Come on, creepy hellions. You want to go home, don’t you?’ I croon, sticking my sword into the cage. The Pit hellions creep slowly toward me. They watch the sword greedily, sniffing as if trying to sense a trap. As soon as Raffe moves toward them, though, they bolt back into the farthest corners of the cage, hissing. I don’t know how to make the creatures travel through the sword if they don’t want to. ‘They’re afraid of you.’ I put out my free arm in front of him. ‘Get behind me.’ I step into the cage. I raise my voice and make myself sound like I’m talking to puppies. ‘Come on, ugly squat-faced things. You want to go home, don’t you? Mmm, home.’ They creep cautiously toward me, watching Raffe carefully. ‘I’ll open the doorway to your home as soon as you let me hold your hand.’ I have to keep myself from cringing away at that thought. ‘No!’ says Beliel. His eyes are fierce, like he’s just realized he’s in a nightmare that he can’t wake up from. ‘Get away—’ I grab the nearest hellion. It grabs my forearm back, sinking its claws in. Pain pierces through my arm, but I hang on. At the same time, Raffe jumps in and grabs the other hellion. Then total chaos breaks out. With an intensity bordering on panic, Beliel shoves Josiah out of the way and tries to leap out of the cage. Raffe’s hellion freaks and tries to rush the cage door, flapping madly. I instinctively swing my blade to stop Beliel’s escape and end up skewering Beliel’s side. As he roars, Raffe’s hellion leaps onto my sword. It slides down the blade with Raffe gripping its leg. It disappears into Beliel. And Raffe, still hanging on to its leg, disappears right after it. Before I can blink, the hellion I’m holding dives down the sword as well, dragging me with it. At first, I try to let go – Raffe’s the only one who’s supposed to go into the Pit – but the hellion still has a grip on my arm. In the split second before the hellion lets go of me, my hand slips into Beliel, and I’m falling. I clench so tightly that I almost pull the hellion’s arm off. We slam through Beliel’s body, and the breath gets knocked out of me. For a painful split second, the shock of going through the barrier almost tears me off my ride. But I hang on, tortured by the idea that if I’m jarred loose, I could end up in an even worse place than I might be going. We fall through a darkness that seems endless. I turn to see Josiah’s stunned face staring down at me through a fast-closing tunnel.I shut my eyes, convinced that there are some things we humans aren’t meant to see. Josiah’s shocked face burns out of my mind as only one thought begins to dominate. We are going into hell. 35 This isn’t the same as the last time I went into Beliel’s memory. This time, it hurts. Every cell in my body cries from the pain of it. Hopefully, it’s because my physical body is actually going on the trip along with my mind. Just when I think my eyes are going to pop from squeezing them shut so tightly, we slam onto the ground. My stomach clenches, and my chin and chest sting where they hit the ground. No wonder the hellions were so disoriented when they landed on Angel Island. I feel like I just got rolled as flat as pizza dough and slapped onto the ground. I also feel like I’m baking in an oven. A very stinky oven cooking rotten eggs. I force myself to roll over and open my eyes. There’s really no time for recovery when you’ve just landed in hell. The sky – if it is a sky – is a cracked purple black with darker blotches. The weak light throws a purple cast over the hulking shadows above me. Edging my vision, there are faces looking down at me. I’m not really sure what I’m looking at. They remind me of angels, but I don’t think they are. They also remind me of demons, but I don’t think they’re those either. Their open wings look mangy, and what’s left of their feathers look like dried leaves on a dead tree. The exposed parts of the wings look cracked and leathery. The wing bones are splintered, sticking out painfully through the edges of the wings. Many of the bone splinters have curled into a sickle shape, not entirely unlike Raffe’s demon wing blades. The thing that shocks me the most, even though it probably shouldn’t, is that one of these guys is Beliel. It shouldn’t surprise me since I did jump into his memory – or a world in which he has a memory – or whatever. So of course, Beliel would be here. But he looks different. For one thing, his wings are neither the demon wings I’m familiar with nor his original feathered wings. They’re half dark and half still covered with tufts of sunset feathers. I guess since I’m physically here, I might have jumped in time and space, but that’s too much for my brain to handle without exploding. Besides, I don’t have time to think about it. When my eyes adjust to the purple light, I see that Beliel stares in my direction with empty sockets. Beliel is blind. It takes me a second to convince myself that it really is him. He has deep lash marks across his cheeks and nose. He’s been whipped in the face. He also has gouge marks around his eye sockets. The others don’t look much better. One of them has half a perfect Greek-god face and another half that looks like it’s been chewed off. Without their injuries, I can tell that they would have been perfect specimens, just like any other angel. Between their damaged bodies, I can see we’re in a war zone or, at least, what’s left of one. The buildings are burned out, the broken trees are charred, and the vehicles are smashed and gutted. At least, I’m assuming these were buildings, trees, and vehicles. They don’t look like ours, but the hulking shapes look like they used to be inhabited a long time ago. Like a village of some kind. Something that looks like stunted cacti that have been stomped and twisted sits rooted into the ground. And there is debris strewn around that looks vaguely like wagon wheels. A nonangel with canary-yellow feathers reaches for me. His skin has been ripped right off his arm, leaving only the glistening muscles beneath. I cringe, but he grabs me by the hair and yanks me up to my feet. ‘What is it?’ asks Beliel. ‘Can we eat it?’ I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything more disturbing than empty eye sockets, especially on someone I know, even if it’s Beliel. He puts a pointy ear in his mouth and chews on it. It looks a lot like a hellion’s ear. I wonder what happened to the hellion I rode. Then I see what’s left of it on the ground, all smashed and torn apart. It’s hardly recognizable anymore. Where’s Raffe? ‘It’s a Daughter of Man,’ says my captor. His voice is ominous, like those words have some deep meaning. There’s a long silence as everyone stares at me. ‘Which one?’ Beliel finally asks. The one holding me looks around at the others. He doesn’t ease up on my hair. ‘Is this one of yours? She’s not mine.’ ‘There’s no reason to believe she would be one of ours, Cyclone,’ says Beliel. His voice is raspy as if he’d either been screaming himself raw or someone had choked him. ‘I’m through with them,’ says one. ‘The thought of them makes me ill.’ ‘Yeah, maybe Big B’s right,’ says another. ‘Maybe we’re better off eating her. We could use some meat to help us heal.’ I squirm trying to get out of the nonangel’s grip. Where is Raffe? ‘Let her go,’ says another. This one has blue-tinged feathers. ‘Thermo, if we let her go, she’ll wish we had cooked her up and eaten her. Setting her free here is not a mercy.’ That’s not what I wanted to hear. ‘And is that a sword?’ Several of them lean down to look at my sword, which lies on the ground just out of reach. One of them tries to lift it and grunts at the weight. He lets it go. They all stare at me, scrutinizing. ‘What are you?’ asks Cyclone. ‘She’s a Daughter of Man, can’t you see that?’ says Thermo. ‘If she’s a Daughter of Man, where’s her pack of hellions?’ says a guy with black feathers and sharp eyes. ‘Where are her chains? Why does she look so healthy and whole?’ ‘And how does she have an angel sword?’ asks one who has brown wings streaked with yellow. ‘It can’t be hers. Somehow, it got here. And somehow, she got here. But that doesn’t mean it’s her sword. We haven’t been here long enough to believe things that are that crazy.’ They all look at Pooky Bear with longing, but none of them tries to pick her up. ‘So whose is it?’ They all look at me. I shrug. ‘I’m just a Daughter of Man. I don’t know anything.’ No one argues with that. ‘Where am I?’ I ask. The pull on my hair is becoming unbearable. Two of them have their scalps partly torn off, and I’m beginning to wonder if this is why.

‘In the Pit,’ says Thermo. ‘Welcome to the hunting district.’ ‘Is this the same as hell?’ I ask. The one with black feathers shrugs. ‘Does it matter? It’s hellish. Why do you care if it matches your primitive myth?’ ‘What do you hunt here?’ I ask. The angel with the brown-and-yellow wings snorts. ‘We don’t. We’re the prey.’ That doesn’t sound good. ‘What are you?’ I ask. I’m assuming they’re Raffe’s Watchers, but better to be sure. ‘You don’t look like angels, and you don’t look like . . .’ What do I really know about what demons look like? ‘Oh, do excuse us for not introducing ourselves,’ says the one with the brown-and-yellow wings. He emphasizes his sarcasm by bowing to me. ‘We are the newly Fallen. The Watchers, to be precise. And probably your executioners. Not that it’ll take more than one of us to do the deed. But you get the point. I’m Howler.’ Howler points to the one with black feathers and brown skin. ‘That’s Hawk.’ He points to the one with blue-tinged feathers, then to several others. ‘Thermo. Flyer. Big B. Little B. And the one holding you is Cyclone.’ He looks around at the others. There are too many to introduce them all, not that I’d remember their names. ‘Do we care who she is?’ ‘Sure,’ says Flyer. ‘Maybe it’ll give us something to think about when we’re bored out of our minds for the next millennium. Who are you?’ ‘I’m . . .’ I’m hesitant to give them my name. Raffe said names have power. ‘I’m the angel slayer.’ It sounds kind of ridiculous now that I’ve said it. It sounded better in my head, but whatever. For a moment, they all stare at me. Then, as if on cue, they burst out laughing. Howler curls over his left ribs with his hands protectively covering them like they’re broken. ‘Oh, don’t make me laugh. That hurts.’ Cyclone chuckles behind me. He finally lets go of my hair, leaving my scalp tender. ‘Holy Mother of God, I didn’t realize I could laugh anymore.’ ‘Yeah, it’s been a long, long time,’ says Little B. ‘The angel slayer, huh?’ asks Howler. ‘Well, that was great,’ says Beliel, who apparently is Big B. ‘Can we eat her now?’ ‘He’s got a point,’ says Little B. ‘I can’t remember the last time we had a full meal. She’s scrawny, but I’m desperate for food to manage all this healing—’ Something grabs him – a tentacle? – and yanks him back. He yells and thrashes, kicking and twisting, but he can’t get loose. It drags him behind a pile of rubble, bashing his head and shoulders on jagged fragments along the way. The Watchers all become fully alert and ready for battle, but they’re practically hyperventilating. These guys have not fared well here. I stand frozen. If these legendary warriors are afraid, what should I be feeling? I’m beginning to wish I had just kept my mouth shut about coming here. Being killed in a gladiator arena is starting to sound merciful now. They all fly after Little B even though there’s more than a little stress on their faces. They kick and yank and try to pull him out of the tentacle’s grip. Then another one of them gets sucked backward. As far as I can tell, the thing that took him was the scorching wind. He gets yanked back through a window of a half-demolished building. Within seconds, screams erupt from inside. The nearest Watchers rush to the window and look inside. They look away like they wish they hadn’t seen what they just saw. Somewhere, another kind of screaming heads our way. It’s a mad shriek in the distance that sets my nerves on edge. The Watchers back away with Little B who is kicking off the last of the tentacle that had him. They turn and begin rushing away from the building and the direction of the mad screams. Someone grabs my arm and pulls me with him. To my surprise, it’s Beliel. ‘Stick with us. We’re your best chance.’ I notice he doesn’t say best chance at what. I bend to grab my sword off the ground, not caring if any of them see me do it. They’re too busy getting in formation and scanning for danger to pay any attention to me. We scatter, half running with our backs to each other. These guys have worked together before. Too bad it doesn’t seem to help them much here. Where’s Raffe? What have I gotten myself into? 36 We run through the district, zigzagging this way and that like a pack of wolves escaping from a hunter. The place is full of broken bricks and old bones. Charred and twisted chunks of wood lie alongside rusted pieces of metal among the debris. I try to keep up with the Watchers, some who run and some who fly low to the ground as though worried they could be seen higher up. Beliel flies with his hand on a Watcher’s ankle to guide him. It must take a lot of trust to fly blind. The Beliel I know would have a lot of trouble doing that. They’ll probably kill me as soon as they get the chance, but I’ll deal with that after we escape from whatever it is that’s trying to kill us now. I make the mistake of turning around to see what we’re running from. There are three pumped-up demons like the one I saw the last time I was in the Pit. They’re all enormous, with huge muscles encased in leather straps crisscrossing their bodies. Their torsos are otherwise naked, and that’s as far down as I can see. They probably don’t have cows here in the Pit. I try not to think about what animal hide they use for their leather. They ride on chariots pulled by a dozen newly Fallen harnessed in bloody chains. The Fallen frantically sweep their wings as their demon lords whip them. I can tell they’re newly Fallen because they still have most of their feathers, although they’re crushed and twisted. I don’t have to look to know the chariots probably have broken angels strapped to the wheels as well, just like Beliel was in my last visit. The demons use multiheaded sticks like the one I saw back then to whip and bite the angel slaves pulling the chariots. These sticks are topped by circles of shriveled heads all with the same shade of red hair and green eyes. The hair floats as if underwater just like the ones I’d seen before. And like the others I’d seen, these are also screaming soundlessly. When their masters whip the stick, they come shrieking toward the Fallen, biting and ripping strips of skin and feathers off them when they land.One of the demons looks at me. I can’t help but think that it’s the same one who saw me the last time I visited the Pit. His wings are on fire, and his glistening body glows red from the reflection. He snaps his multiheaded whip at me as all the chariots charge closer. The matching heads scream as they come at me with an intensity that’s beyond insane. All balls of teeth and eyes and writhing hair. All I know is that I do not want one of those latching onto me. I pump my legs as fast as I can. I do a sharp turn around a corner and run behind a broken building. There’s a hatchway in a crumbling wall. I throw it open. I’m about to race down the stone steps into the darkness below when one of the Watchers crash-lands on the ground in front of me. It’s Beliel. He has a whip head chewing its way into his back. Two more of the screaming heads land on him. One latches on and rips a strip of flesh off his arm. The other catches itself on Beliel’s hair and begins whipping around, pulling part of Beliel’s scalp with it. Beliel grabs the one off his scalp and crushes it. I jump in and viciously kick the head off his back. Beliel is my ticket out of here, and I can’t let him get killed. My head hurts just trying to understand what it would mean if he dies here. The last head is chewing its way up the strip of torn skin on his arm. I yank the head and rip the skin all the way off, ignoring Beliel’s bellow of pain. I stomp on it until it stops moving. Beliel staggers up onto his feet. I shove him down the dark stairs and slam the hatch behind me. I try not to pant too loudly as I latch the door shut. We seem to be in a basement below a crumbled building. The only light is from the cracks of the hatch door, and it’s too dark to see whether there’s another exit. The ground vibrates. Large, heavy chunks of debris thunk down against the hatch. I stiffen and get ready, gripping my sword with both hands. A sense of doom vibrates off Beliel as he stands with his ear cocked toward the hatch, as though he’s been here a thousand times before and lost the battle each time. Looking at how torn and trashed he and the other Watchers are, that doesn’t seem far-fetched. The hatch rattles and jiggles as the heads attack it with their teeth. The gnawing and bumping against the hatch goes on forever before it finally stops. Then a great rattling and the sound of whipping moves past outside. The demons must not have seen where we disappeared to, even if their whip heads did. The chariot rattle fades into the distance. I cautiously let my breath out and look around. We’re in an underground hovel of some kind. Trashed bedding lies in the shadows, a raised seat made of mud, charred remains of a long-ago fireplace. ‘Do you know what they would have done to you?’ asks Beliel in a raspy whisper beside me. I jump. I hadn’t realized he was so close. ‘Those heads,’ he says. ‘Do you know what they scream for?’ I shake my head, then remember he can’t see me. ‘A new body. They’re desperate for it.’ He leans against the wall of the hovel with his empty sockets turned to me. ‘Welcome to the Pit. Like it or not, you’ve just joined the initiations for the newly Fallen.’ ‘How long do the initiations go on?’ ‘Until you become Consumed or something equally horrible. Or it’s possible the Pit lords might feel like promoting you out of maggot status. I’ve heard it only happens sometime after your wings fully turn. Then the real fun begins.’ ‘It gets worse after you’re promoted?’ ‘That’s what I heard.’ Something thuds on the hatch outside. I stay silent until whatever it was that hit the hatch goes away. ‘What about those screaming whip heads? Are they being initiated too?’ ‘They’re the Consumed. They’re the ones who didn’t make it through initiation. There’s a legendary feast that goes on with the Pit lords. The Consumed are the ones who were sacrificed for the feast.’ He shakes his head. ‘We can grow back a lot of things, but not a whole body or even major parts.’ He rubs his empty eye sockets. ‘But when you’re in the Pit, there are infinite opportunities for more misery. The Consumed cry out by the thousands to be included in a head whip for the chance to claim a new body.’ I’ve never seen Beliel so chatty. This earlier version of him is going to take some getting used to. ‘If they get their teeth into you, they’ll burrow before you can blink. They’ll work their way up to your head where they gnaw until your head falls off. Then they plant themselves in your neck. Sometimes, they fight, and two or three of them plant themselves before it’s all done. That’s a sight that makes you wish your eyes had been gouged out.’ I look at him to see if he just told a joke, but there’s no change in his expression. ‘A Fallen body is a prize, but they’ll take anything with limbs. They’ll even take rat bodies with the hope that they can move up the food chain so long as they can find the next victim. So watch your feet.’ He slides down the wall, sitting against it. ‘Rumor has it that some of the most powerful Pit lords were once Consumed. Of course, by the time they reach Pit-lord status, they’re beyond insane.’ I like to think I can handle insanity, but this is taking it to a whole new level. ‘So always be on guard,’ he says. ‘You could lose more here than you could possibly imagine.’ Is Beliel really looking out for me? There must be an ulterior motive, but I can’t think of one right now. ‘Why are you telling me all this?’ Maybe he’s not Beliel but just someone who looks like him. He sure doesn’t sound like him. ‘You saved me out there,’ he says. ‘I pay what’s owed, good or bad. Besides, I have a soft spot for Daughters of Men. My wife used to be one.’ His voice trails off, and I can barely hear his last sentence. ‘You’re offering to protect me?’ The disbelief clearly comes through in my voice. ‘No one can protect you, little girl, certainly not a newly Fallen whose eyes haven’t grown back yet. Anyone who says they can protect you is lying. It’s just a question of friend or foe. That’s all.’ ‘And you’re telling me you’re my friend?’ ‘I’m not your enemy.’ ‘What the hell kind of bizarro world am I in?’ I whisper to myself. I don’t expect Beliel to answer, but he does. ‘You’re in the ruins of the hellion world.’

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