Content warnings for Part 1 of this chapter include brief fantasy violence, including blood and self-mutilation.
Part 1: Angel
For the first time in her life, Lian was finding it difficult to fly. Everywhere she went, the other angels shied away from her presence, and she didn’t blame them. With her black and bedraggled wings, she looked more like a demon pretending to be an angel.
She almost didn’t think that she’d be able to make it back to her residence. And even if she did, Lian suddenly thought with a bolt of clarity, what would be left for her? Healm, with his disappointed expression? They wouldn’t be able to stay together.
She remembered the promise they had made: that after Detta got married, Lean would quit visiting the human world and they would ask to be demoted together. But now, she wasn’t going to be able to keep that promise, because she would have to take whatever position they offered her, no matter what it was. She didn’t want to force Healm to drop that many ranks just to be with her now that her wings had gone dark, but knowing him, the idiot probably would anyway.
But what else could she do? There was no way she’d be able to hide what she’d done, not with the signs splayed out for all to see. The best she could hope for was to be demoted before Healm found out, so he wouldn’t try to follow her.
Suddenly, the sight of Detta’s tearstained gaze popped into Lian’s mind, the love of her life begging her not to go. Lian gritted her teeth as she soldiered onwards on shaky wings. She didn’t have a choice! There was no way she’d be able to go back to see Detta ever again, not unless-!
Her wingbeats stuttered. Not unless she did the unthinkable, and made a deal with a demon to become human and spend the rest of her life watching over Detta before dying a mortal death. Normally, an angel could never even get close enough to a demon to make a deal with them, but Lian remembered what Healm had told her when he’d first given her the box. Commit one, and you would never be able to advance to a higher rank. Commit two, and you would be demoted with no hope of ever reattaining your position. Commit all three, and a demon would appear to bargain you into Hell.
Spending an eternity in Hell didn’t sound like a good idea to Lian, especially since she was an Archangel who had taken down a good number of demons, but would it be worth it if she could have just a few more years with Detta?
Lian was terrified to realize that the answer to that question, spurred by the emotions her first sin had let loose, was yes.
Shaking, Lian slowed her wingbeats and reached up under her robe to retrieve the hilt of the dark celestial blade. Holding her breath, she channeled energy into it, watching as the blade flickered to life in a dark reddish-black.
The last sin she would have to commit was to hurt another angel with this blade, but did that mean just injure them, or did that mean kill them? As much as Lian wanted to see Detta again, she didn’t think she could kill another angel just to get her wish. The thought of finding Healm’s blood on the edge of the demonic blade made her heart waver. The blade’s edge flickered out of existence, leaving just the hilt in her hand. Collapsing against the wall of a nearby building, Lian draped her arms over her eyes. She just couldn’t do it.
Her wings brushed up against the cold stone of the wall, sending shoots of pain down her newly formed feathers with each stroke. Wincing, Lian pushed herself further away, only to realize that only one of her wings was brushing the wall: the larger one, her original wing. The other wing, the one that had been smaller ever since her accident, wasn’t the wing she had been formed with. The Cherubim who had healed her had attached the severed wing of another angel who had fallen in battle.
If her assumption was correct, the sin would only be committed if she injured another angel, not herself. Since her new wing had been a transplant from another angel, it might still count as part of that other angel, even if they were already dead. If that was the case, she might be able to commit the last sin without having to injure one of her comrades.
To test her theory, Lian summoned the dark blade again and turned it towards herself, taking a deep breath before slashing it swiftly across her stomach. Just as she had suspected, the blade easily ripped open her robe, but left only a bruise against her skin. But now came the real test: Lian reached up over her shoulder and laid the flat of the darkly glowing blade against the muscle where her new wing grew out of her back. After only a moment’s hesitation, she slashed the blade downwards.
The blade severed her wing without resistance. Excruciating pain, far worse than the pain she’d felt after committing the first two sins, exploded from the point of contact as a spray of blood dirtied the wall behind her, and then she was falling, her one remaining wing unable to keep her in the air. The wind whipped past her as she tumbled into an out of control spiral, unable to steer with only one wing. The last thing Lian saw before she blacked out from the pain was a trail of black feathers, shedding away from her single skeletal wing.
Part 2: Demon
The first thing Lian noticed when she woke up was the cold. She’d anticipated that she’d land straight in the domain of the demons when she fell, hot and smelling of brimstone and sulfur. But even before she opened her eyes, the cold had seeped into her bones as a permanent ache.
Lian wrenched her eyes open so she could look around her. She drew in a breath of air that was cold enough to cause her physical pain as it entered her lungs. There was no snow on the ground, but a thick layer of frost covered the strange plants that grew there. They were dark, alien abominations covered in thorns and razor-sharp leaves only made sharper by the merciless frost.
As she tried to push herself up to a sitting position, the skeleton remains of her once-beautiful wing dragged along the ground, sending horrific shudders of pain through her very bones. Gasping aloud, Lian tried to fold the wing up against her back, but found that her muscles had all been stripped away, leaving nothing but segmented bones barely held together with sinew.
Then Lian looked up at the sky, and she gasped. It was dark, but there were no stars. Instead, a streak of bluish green light ran the length of the sky, flickering and moving like a snake. As she gazed upwards, mesmerized by the winding light, she saw a shooting star arc through the sky. It split into two fragments; the first fragment went up, above the aurora, but the second fell down towards the ground. It landed several hills away from her, surprisingly gentle compared to her own fall.
Gritting her teeth, Lian forced herself upright and went to investigate the fallen object. Just before she made it to the top of the hill, however, she heard the sound of a cooing voice. Quickly, Lian hid herself behind a nearby frozen bush and peered up at the scene.
“Oh, you’re such a perfect little soul. You’ll make a strong demon one day, won’t you?”
Lian shivered at the sound of that voice. It belonged to a lithe figure facing away from her, towards the fallen object. The figure looked almost human, except for the pair of black bat-like wings extending from its back. She’d never seen one before, but Lian knew at once what it was: a Libbicocco, the highest rank of demon, and the only one that possessed the power of flight.
The Libbicocco turned around, cooing at the bundle in its arms. With a shock, Lian realized that it was carrying what looked like a human child. The baby waved its fists in the air and screamed, and the Libbicocco laughed.
“Yes, you’ll make a perfect little soldier. Let’s get you on your way, shall we?”
The Libbicocco cradled the bundle against its chest, then spread its wings and took off. Lian watched it disappear into the distance, utterly confused. What was a high ranking demon doing here? Where was here? And had that really been a human child?
She was so absorbed in her thoughts that she jumped when a voice spoke quietly into her ear.
“Spying, pretty little angel? So rude. Don’t think that I didn’t notice you watching.”
Lian turned around so fast that her broken wing smashed through the frozen leaves behind her, sending another bolt of pain through her spine. The same Libbicocco -- or at least, she assumed it was the same one -- was standing directly behind her.
“Actually, you’re not so pretty anymore.” The demon tilted its head to the side. “Are you a new recruit?”
“R-recruit?” Lian gasped out through chattering teeth.
The demon raised its eyebrows at her. “Usually the holy forces up top send us one or two a year, but they always know they’re going to fall. Did you do the honors yourself?”
“S-something like th-that,” Lian agreed carefully, managing to back away without brushing up against any of the other frozen and deadly plants around her.
“Well, so long as you’re here now.” The demon fixed her with a feral grin. “You look powerful, too. What rank were you?”
Lian regarded the Libbicocco suspiciously before deciding that lying to it would be more dangerous than it was worth. “Archangel.”
“An Archangel! I’m guessing you broke the rules and sent yourself here, didn’t you?” It chucked her chin playfully. “Plucky little thing. Were you that eager to become a demon?”
Lian stiffened at the words. “Wh-what? What do you m-mean?”
“You know, become one of us. That’s what happens; if you’re not an angel, you’re a demon, and vice versa.” The Libbicocco sighed. “You really didn’t know that? Those holy bastards are terrible at communication. Too many ‘need-to-know’ roadblocks. Good soldiers follow orders, and all that.”
“You mean… I’m going to become a demon?!” Lian grabbed at the top of her head as if she could already feel horns sprouting there. “I didn’t know th-that was going to happen!”
The demon gave her a strange look. “I’m sorry, but what did you expect when you fell? Sunshine and daisies? That you’d actually get to get out of this damn war? Sorry, ducky, but that’s not how it works. The only escape around here is death, and even that just puts you back into the soul grinder.”
“Actually, I thought-t I was coming down here to m-make a deal with a demon,” Lian admitted, feeling her face flush.
“A deal?” The demon’s mouth dropped open, then it doubled over in laughter. “Oh, you have been listening to too many stories! Demons can’t make deals any more than angels can! What would you even ask for?”
“I want to become human,” Lian said softly, glancing up at the demon to gauge its reaction.
Suddenly, the laughter stopped. The Libbicocco stared at her with a soft expression; somehow, that only made this worse. “Oh, honey. You really don’t know anything, do you?”
Something was very wrong if a demon was looking at Lian with pity. Shivering, she backed away again. “What does that m-mean?”
“Honey…” the Libbicocco rested a hand on Lian’s shoulder, once again closing the gap between them. “You can’t become human. Or at least, I can’t make you human.”
So it really was hopeless. Lian lowered her head, but it jerked up again at the demon’s next words.
“But you can be reborn as a human- but only if you die.”
Lian shook harder than before; her skeletal wing ripped through the razor plants around her, but she didn’t even feel the pain anymore. Her entire body was numb.
“What do you mean, reborn? An angel can’t be reborn as a human! They- they have souls! We don’t!”
“Of course you don’t have a soul, honey,” the Libbicocco said, and Lian felt herself start to relax. Everything returned, however, at the demon’s next words. “You are a soul.”
“Your being is a soul,” the Libbicocco explained gently, black eyes soft. “That’s the purpose of this world: to recycle human souls so they don’t have memories of a previous life.”
“N-no.” Lian shook. She tried to wrap her wings around herself for comfort, but her remaining skeletal sing only reminded her of what she had lost. “You’re lying. You have to be! How can we be all the same if there are sins? How can I-” she swallowed thickly around the words. “How can I become a demon when I fall if angels and demons are the same?”
“Because we aren’t the same- not anymore.”
The Libbicocco took Lian’s hand and pressed their palms together. At first, she tried to pull away, then she realized what the demon was trying to show her. Where their skin touched, their respective essences flared out and intertwined. Whereas Lian’s was a bright gold, the demon’s energy was much darker. With a start, she realized that what she had always assumed to be a black energy was actually a gleaming silver.
“There’s only a finite amount of souls, and we have to keep them moving between this world and the human world. This place cleanses souls of their past memories, but whoever set the system up made a mistake. There’s no natural death here, or aging, or suffering- no incentive to leave. But we have to send souls back to inhabit new bodies.”
The numb cold started to crawl down Lian’s throat. “The war.”
The Libbicocco’s sly grin was back. “My, my, you are intelligent! It’s a shame I’ll have to wipe you when I turn you into a demon.”
“Wipe me?” Suddenly, Detta's face flashed across Lian’s mind. “You mean, I’ll lose all my memories?”
“It’s a safety feature, darling. Anyone who invites human emotions into their mind risks remembering their past life. When it goes too far, the individual is forced to switch factions. When you become a demon, you’ll be starting from the bottom again: a clean slate.”
“A safety feature,” Lian repeated dumbly.
“Of course! An angel killing a demon or a demon killing an angel: that’s how the world is supposed to work. But an angel killing an angel? Or a demon killing a demon? Our essence doesn’t like that. Instead of starting the cycle of rebirth, the soul is gone forever. The same thing if either an angel or a demon kills a human.” The Libbicocco tilted its head to one side. “But you did all three, you naughty thing. We’ll have to be careful about cleansing you.”
The soul is gone forever? Did that mean the man she had shot was never going to be reborn? Lian remembered his blank expression as he slumped to the floor, and she shuddered. But then she forced herself to remember the sight of his eager hands taking what wasn’t offered to him, and she couldn’t bring herself to regret her actions. If extinguishing a soul meant Detta was safe, Lian would use the pistol a hundred times more.
The pistol! Suddenly, Lian’s numbness was replaced with white hot anger. She shoved the demon away, relishing the surprise on its face as it stumbled backwards.
“Then why give us the tools to extinguish souls? Why not tell us about the consequences? Why set us up to fail?”
The Libbicocco’s grin turned mocking again. “Because, little angel, the tools are a test. A test you failed quite spectacularly. We need to see how you react to temptation to see if you’re worthy of learning how this world really works. The higher-rank demons all get the same test, by the way.”
Lian ground her teeth together. “It should have never come to this.”
“Oh, you’re absolutely right. You should have been sent to us long before you completed the trifecta.” The Libbicocco grabbed her chin with sharp claws and leered at her. “So who was covering for you? I’m sure once the Seraphim realize what happened, they’ll join you in your descent.”
Healm’s harsh expression echoed through her mind, and Lian winced. She never wanted to drag him down with her, despite how much he seemed to crave following her destructive spiral.
“Why are you telling me all this?” Lian asked bitterly. “What’s the point if you’re just going to wipe my memories?”
“Because, little angel, I am a curious creature by nature, and you are so very entertaining.” Its eyes flashed. “Tell me: why do you want to become human?”
Lian remained silent. In the face of everything she’d just learned, her reckless love seemed foolish. But the demon’s grip on her chin tightened when she refused to speak.
“Come now, don’t be shy,” it cooed menacingly.
Lian squeezed her eyes shut. “What does it matter? If I become a demon, my memories will be wiped. If I die and become reborn as a human, I’ll be a baby and I still won’t have my memories. Either way, I’ll never see her again.”
The Libbicocco’s grip on her chin tightened, and Lian knew she had made a mistake. But then the claws fell away. When she opened her eyes, Lian saw that the demon was once again staring at her with pity.
“So you did fall in love with a human.”
Lian drew herself up to her full height, which was a foot shorter than the Libbicocco’s lithe frame. “What of it? Does it change my sentence?”
“No,” the demon said softly, “but it makes it harder for me to carry it out.”
“Why?” Lian challenged.
“Because like you, I was once an angel in love with a human.”
Lian wasn’t sure what she expected, but this wasn’t it. She reeled away from the Libbicocco, but its eyes were dull and far away; she could have turned and ran, and she suspected the demon wouldn’t have noticed.
“His name was Dimuzi, and he was a King. I was a Collector for the Seraphim, so I thought I knew how things worked. I thought that I could bring him back, or at least, I could save his memories. I couldn’t. And now I’m here.”
Lian swallowed tightly. “How- how did you escape being… cleansed? How do you still remember him?”
“Because the Collector who found me took pity on me. It offered me a deal: loyalty in exchange for skipping the cleansing.” It shook its head. “And I must be a fool, because I’m going to do the same thing. You were right all along, little angel. A demon is going to offer you a bargain. Just make sure you don’t regret it.”
“What… what kind of bargain?” Lian asked, barely able to hope.
“You want to see your precious human again? Then you have one shot.” The Libbicocco stabbed a finger at the center of Lian’s chest. “Sometimes human bodies are still viable for a time, after the soul has fled. We find you one of those bodies, and we shove your soul inside it. You get to spend a few more precious moments with your love. And then, when the body dies, I personally come to collect you.”
An ache that had nothing to do with the cold welled deep inside Lian. More than anything, she wanted to see Detta, even if it was only for a moment. But gazing at the demon’s cunning eyes, she couldn’t accept without question.
“You collect me? Personally? What would you gain from that?”
“Ah, I see I made a good choice. A smart demon is one who stays alive.” The Libbicocco licked its lips. “The upper ranks of the demon army are a treacherous place, and I want strong allies. When I collect your soul, I’ll make a convenient mistake during your cleansing process. You’ll keep all your memories, but in return, you’ll belong to me. I think you’ll make a fine Arlecchino. Would you like that? The form suits you.”
Lian had never fought an Arlecchino, although she had seen them before. They were small and agile, darting around the battlefield with sharp claws. And if the rumors about their position in the demon army were true, they were the advisors of the highest demons ranks. An Arlecchino needed wit as sharp as its claws to survive. But, Lian thought, at least Arlecchino possessed a humanoid form, albeit decorated with spines, unlike the monstrous lower ranks.
“And this deal is what you received as well?” she found herself asking.
The demon’s eyes suddenly went hollow again. “No,” it said. “I attempted the transfer myself, before I knew what I was doing. I destroyed the soul of my beloved, as well as the soul of the human I tried to possess. And then I was thrown out. I wanted to die, to be reborn and cleanse the memories of my loss… but revenge on the Seraphim who had misled me was a strong motivation, and my Master wanted another devoted Collector.”
The demon was sincere, Lian could tell from its eyes. It shook its head as if repelling the bad memories, then once again flashed that cheeky grin. It held out a palm for Lian to take.
“So, what do you think of my proposition, little angel? You won’t find one better. It’s a win for us both.”
Lian regarded the hand extended to her. “I have one more question.”
“Of course! I encourage my newest underling to be curious.” It winked at her.
Lian hesitated only for a moment before asking, “What is your name?”
The Libbicocco regarded her for a long moment before letting out a chuckle. “Good, very good. Arleccino thrive on information alone. I was once known as Innana, when I was among the angels. Now they call me Ashtar, and I am the Collector of Souls.” It looked at her with hard eyes. “And you, little angel? What do they call you?”
“Lian,” she said quietly.
“Bah.” The demon made a face. “That’s not a very demonic name. We’ll have to rechristen you. How does… Lucian sound instead?”
Lian’s mind shied away from the new name, but it made sense: she would have to shed her old identity, and her name couldn’t come with her. She let it settle against her consciousness. Lucian. That was her now. And just like when she’d decided she was a girl, she felt something click inside her breast. Her name was Lucian.
“It is a good name,” Lucian said. “Thank you for bestowing it on me.”
“Just another way to keep you in my debt, my dear,” the Libbicocco laughed. “Now, I assume that means you’ve decided to join me?”
It extended its hand once again, and this time, Lucian took it. “Yes. I accept your deal.”
“Exssselent,” the demon hissed. “Come with me now. We must be quick, before the other Collectors notice your presence here.”
The demon turned its back on Lucian and started walking away, through the tall plants full of frozen razors and thorns. She only hesitated a moment before she followed it. As she walked by its side, it laid a clawed hand on her shoulder, like a parent might guide a child.
Lucian walked silently for a moment before suddenly asking, “Is there any chance you could make me a man? When I’m a human?”
The demon’s eyebrows crawled up its forehead, but it only shook its head and sighed. “You’ll get what you get, pumpkin. Human bodies aren’t exactly in plentiful supply.” But then its eyes softened. “But I’ll see what I can do.”