“Huh, heaven is a lot nicer than I would have figured.” I closed my eyes and tipped my head back, savoring the feeling of the sun on my skin.
Or, rather, whatever light source they had here. Given I was in the Plains, it wasn’t the sun.
Which sure was the one place I’d never figured I’d get to.
With the life I’d lived, hell hadn’t been a shock to me, but heaven? Good people ended up here, and I hadn’t ever fool myself into thinking I belonged in such a place.
“I miss the Chasm,” Yazmor said from beside me. “When you breathe in there, ash sort of coats your throat and tongue.”
“And you think that’s a good thing?”
He shrugged, tucking his hands into the pocket at the front of his hoodie sweater. “It makes me feel like I’m back home.”
For Yazmor—a remnant from an old version of the world—home meant a place that didn’t exist anymore. I recalled what I’d seen of his world, the universe that had come and gone so long ago that no one else remembered it. Smoke, ash and fire had filled the landscape, so I could understand how that might make him nostalgic.
“Well, I’m planning to enjoy this sun and fresh air. Who knows if I’ll get a chance again.”
“Are you planning on dying or something?”
“I didn’t plan to die the first time, but that didn’t stop it from happening. I’ve learned that no one really plans to die—it just happens.”
Yazmor bumped his shoulder against mine, making me trip slightly from the impact. “Yeah, well, I don’t plan on letting that happen.”
From anyone else, that would have seemed like some empty boast. Coming from Yazmor, though? If anyone had the ability to keep death at bay, it’d be him.
I glanced at him and fought my smile. He was back to himself, and it was hard to believe just how awkward things had been so recently.
Our trip through the Path—the only way to get from the Chasm to the Plains—had twisted all five of us. None had reacted as bad as Yazmor. He’d lost himself to his other form, unable to keep his human one. Worse, he’d pulled away, putting distance between himself and the rest of us.
He hadn’t been the only one to struggle. I’d been so quick to doubt myself, afraid to make any choices in case they were the wrong ones, in case someone else suffered because of it. Gorrin had turned even more over-protective than usual. I was lucky we were stuck there, because if he’d been on Earth, he’d have surrounded me in bubble wrap and never let me out of his sight. Tyrus had let his paranoia run wild, causing him to hoard goods and watch us all as though we were planning to fuck him over. And Hale?
He walked ahead of me, his jacket off, which showed his tattoos in the sunlight. He had been terrified that I’d betray him, had looked at everything I’d done or said, looking for proof that I would hurt him.
I could understand each of their behaviors, their fears, which the Path had played upon until they could hardly recall the uneasy trust we’d found.
When we’d finally gotten here, to the Plains, that heavy feeling had let up. Still, it was a lot harder to move past the things that had happened, the things we’d all admitted, the sides of ourselves and one another that we didn’t love or want to examine.
Worse, we all looked like hell. Gorrin had warned us not to use our powers unless we had no other choice. Angels and Hubis could feel if we did, and while a little could get overlooked, using our powers too much would get us caught.
“So, this is heaven,” I said for what had to be the hundredth time already. I just couldn’t fully believe it.
“Were you expecting clouds and cherubs?” Yazmor asked.
“I mean, I wouldn’t mind any of that. This just seems too normal, like we could be in any little town. Why does this place look like that? Doesn’t it pre-date this sort of place on Earth?”
“Well, some of the Plains changes, just like the Chasm does. Areas can look different based on the people there. Also, since angels do a lot of work on Earth, they influence human trends.”
“You’re saying Hubis wastes angels’ time by making them decide whether adobe or brick are going to be on trend? They’ve got nothing better to do than that?”
“Of course not—that would be crazy! Angels care more about style trends. Remember those super baggy pants with the tall platform sneakers that were popular in the nineties? Yeah, those were all Azael.”
That was before my time, but I recalled seeing pictures of teens wearing them. “Well, now I’m even more glad he’s gone.”
“Right? If you have that sort of power, you should use it better. That’s why I made those little keychain pet video games big.”
I would have laughed him off—most people did—but I’d gotten to know Yazmor well enough to guess he was telling the truth. The more outlandish something sounded, the more likely it had actually happened.
We’d only been in the Plains for about an hour, according to Tyrus’ watch. Despite turning my phone off in the Path, it had still ended up drained. Leave it to the Path to still be fucking me over.
Gorrin had taken the lead as soon as we’d arrived, his comfort here reminding me that this was his home, that he knew this place better than any of us.
Fuck, he knew this place better than any other place.
It made me glance his way, to see his wings out and pure and almost sparkling in the light. They’d appeared as soon as we’d arrived.
Were they harder to hide here? I didn’t dare ask, because Gorrin had one hell of a do not cross on that subject.
Gorrin had been rather strange about his angel form in general, as though it made him uncomfortable. I had a feeling that being here, in the Plains, was the worst time to question him.
Something moved to the side of us, making the brush rustle. It was the sort of slight shifting that came when a person was trying hard not to get noticed.
After dealing with Guardian and his overly enthusiastic tentacles, my nerves were shot. It meant I reached out and grabbed for the person, then hauled them from the bush they hid in.
Instead of the weird shit I’d dealt with in the Path, however, I didn’t at all expect to find a child in front of me, my hand wrapped around their thin arm.
It was a young girl, her eyes wide as she stared up at me. “I’m sorry,” she rushed out, not bothering to pull away as if she knew it would prove useless.
And a glance around told me why she might just react that way. The Lords and I looked rough when we were at our best, and after barely surviving the Path?
We were far from our best.
Our clothing was tattered and dirty. Dirt and blood streaked our faces. Enough time had passed that our injuries had healed, but that didn’t remove the stains from our fight with Guardian.
If I saw us somewhere, I’d have run in the other direction, too.
And that didn’t even go into Hale and his tattoos and piercings or the tattoos on my face, along with my green hair.
We were one hell of a hot mess.
I smiled, pretending that’d soften my appearance and our whole vibe. “What’s your name?”
The girl swallowed hard, then answered in a small voice, “Emma.”
She appeared to be seven, perhaps, and rather slim. She had long dark hair and matching dark eyes. In fact, she looked a lot like Tyrus. However, the most notable feature was the way her lip on the left was tucked up, toward her nostrils. I was pretty sure it was called a cleft lip, though I’d never really seen it before in real life.
I didn’t take much to not react to her appearance. I might have been surprised if I’d still been alive, but after five years in the Chasm, with damned who were twisted into almost unrecognizable forms, nothing really threw me anymore. “Emma is such a pretty name. I’m Loch.”
Emma glanced at Yazmor, her gaze suspicious and unsure. At least that told me she had some smarts.
“My name is Yazmor.” He crouched in front of Emma, giving her one of those smiles that unnerved normal people.
Except she seemed taken by it. Maybe it was similar to how children liked cartoon characters with exaggerated features—that sure described Yazmor, after all.
“Why were you hiding from us?”
“I thought you might get mad at me.”
“I’m never mad,” Yazmor lied. “But you’ve been following us for the last ten minutes.”
I turned my gaze on him, frowning because I’d totally missed that. In fact, I’d stupidly thought I’d done so well, that I’d managed to spot her when no one else had. Turns out I’m a step behind, like always.
“Not a lot of people live this far out, so I was curious who you were.”
“I don’t like a lot of people.” Yazmor balanced on the balls of his feet, not wavering in the least despite the awkward position. “So I prefer quiet places. You look like the type of person who’d understand that. I bet you always have your nose in a book or your head in the clouds.”
Some of the shadows fell from Emma’s expression, a sure sign that Yazmor had won her over. It seemed he could charm anyone if he really wanted to.
Well, he sure charmed me, didn’t he?
Emma nodded quickly, then reached for a book I hadn’t noticed before, one clutched in her other hand. “I was reading this one when I heard you pass by. It’s about a dragon and a princess.”
“Does a knight come and save her?” Tyrus asked as he walked over, his tone somehow softer than I was used to. In fact, despite the way he could intimidate the hardest of people, he seemed almost kind as he spoke to Emma.
Emma shook her head, pulling the book against her chest. “Of course not! She saves the dragon from the knight, and her and the dragon live happily ever after.”
A sharp bark of laughter escaped me before I could even think about it. I wiped my fingers under my eyes when the laughing fit made my eyes water, then leaned forward a bit as I caught my breath. “Sorry, but that is so my kind of story. Who wants the knight when they can have the monster, huh?”
I peered to the side for a moment to see Yazmor and Tyrus with similar grins on their faces, as though they understood exactly what I meant. If my men weren’t considered monsters, then nothing deserved that title.
I stood back up, then winced when my stomach decided that was the right moment to growl, the sound loud, even above the chirping of birds and general relaxing atmosphere that sounded like a sound machine used for meditation.
Emma stared at my stomach in surprise, then looked up at my face again. “If you’re hungry, why don’t you come eat at our house?”
“Our?” Tyrus asked. “Who is ‘our’?”
“Obviously it’s her and her family,” I said.
Tyrus lifted an eyebrow, as if telling me to think it through. Only when he did, did his point hit me.
This was the Plains—basically heaven. It meant people didn’t grow up and live together and have kids like I was used to.
It also meant that Emma, despite appearing like a child, might very well have been impossibly old.
Emma didn’t seem fazed by Tyrus’ question or my stupid guess, which thrilled me. The last thing I wanted was to show up in heaven and make the first child I ran across cry.
“I live in a house with a few others. It isn’t very far from here, and we have plenty of food there.” She paused, then frowned. “Are you new? Most new souls appear in the center of the palace.”
“Yes, we’re new,” Tyrus acknowledged.
“Did you get here together?”
“The five of us met out here,” he said, the lie slipping from him so easily that it reminded me not to ever trust Tyrus. Even I couldn’t catch it when he lied.
“Five?” Emma twisted, staring at Hale as if she hadn’t noticed him before. Maybe watching me had so distracted her that she hadn’t seen us all.
She showed no real reaction to Hale, despite how he looked. That wasn’t even close to the case when she finally spotted Gorrin coming back, since he’d walked ahead quite a while.
Emma stumbled backward, her feet tangling into the brush that lined the walkway, so she ended up on her ass. “I’m sorry,” she rushed out, her voice thin and terrified. “I didn’t realize you had an angel with you. I would never have spied on you if I had, would never have done something so disrespectful.”
Her words rushed from her so fast that I struggled to understand them.
Not that Gorrin appeared all that surprised when he finally reached us, where Emma still scooted away in the dirt without taking her eyes off him.
“Be at ease,” he assured her. “I am not angry.”
She went to speak, but nothing came out at first, as if her throat had tightened to the point where even words couldn’t escape. She pressed her lips together then swallowed before trying again. “I’m sure you don’t want to come to my place. It isn’t what you’re used to, and it isn’t nice enough for someone like yourself to step into it.” She didn’t look at him, her gaze down, her voice trembling.
Gorrin sighed, his wings shifting to show how much he didn’t care for this reaction. Of course, he also didn’t seem surprised by it, which made no sense to me.
On Earth, people viewed angels as saviors, as holy creatures meant to protect and watch over us. Sure, I’d been dead long enough to know that was total bullshit. Angels were like every other type of being—some were good and some were absolute shit. Still, I’d figured that of all places, in the Plains, they’d be loved.
Instead, the terror in Emma’s face told the truth.
Gorrin reached his hand out, bending down to offer it to Emma. “I would appreciate any food you could spare and some clothing if you have it.”
Emma stared at his hand but didn’t move to take it. “We don’t have anything you would find worthy.”
Gorrin let out a sigh then retracted his hand. He must have realized Emma wouldn’t accept his help. “I assure you, whatever you have will be most appreciated.”
Emma scrambled to her feet but kept Gorrin in her line of sight. His final words had given her no way out, no way to refuse. Even if it was clear she wanted him nowhere near her home, to deny him now would be to go against an angel, and even if I didn’t know much about the Plains, I had a strong feeling that that just wasn’t done.
“Okay,” she said softly, moving around us, giving herself a large swath of space. “It’s just up this way a little farther. Come on.” She walked quickly, looking tiny and fragile compared to the five of us, especially with the way her shoulders trembled.
Yazmor, Hale and Tyrus followed her, leaving Gorrin and I a few steps behind.
“What was that about?” I asked him, keeping my voice low so it didn’t carry to Emma.
Gorrin closed his hands into fists, and somehow, he seemed just as bothered as Emma was. While it was fear from her, he held on to frustration. “I told you before that the Plains are not the heaven people believe this place to be. That includes angels.”
“She’s terrified of you. Why?”
“Because she is smart. Anyone who wishes to survive in the Plains should avoid angels. If you believe Azael to be alone in his cruelty, you are sadly mistaken. The most dangerous things here are the beings who appear just like me.”
He didn’t wait for a response before he walked off, following Emma and the others, leaving me to stare at his back and his wings, which still fluttered as if to display his unease.
All the time I’d spent wanting to get here, and it suddenly didn’t feel like the reward I’d hoped for.
Maybe heaven really wasn’t all it was cracked up to be…