Part 1: Angel
Lian looked out the window of her new residence, which had been given to her after she’d been promoted to Archangel. Typically, new Archangels would move into the barracks with others of their rank, but the Cherubim who had healed her said that rest was essential to her recovery, so she’d been placed here instead. It was small, only a few rooms with high ceilings and hammocks where she could lounge, but she liked the quiet. Her wings hung heavy against her back, much larger than the ones she’d been used to. They were stiff, particularly the replaced wing, and ached like the rest of her body. But she could fly with them, and that was all that mattered.
Archangels had much better lives compared to angels of lower classes, Lian mused. Even after being promoted to Principality, Lian’s existence had been a drudgery of training and fighting. Archangels still had to train, but they were commanders in the war against the demons, and that came with the perks. Free time she could use to visit her new friend in the human world, one she finished recovering.
Like most private residences, Lian’s new home had a door, but she always kept it open, as was the custom in the city of angels. Therefore, it wasn’t a shock when she heard wingbeats behind her. She laughed as she turned to greet her visitor, perching on her windowsill so her wings draped out in the warm sunshine.
“Healm! This is a surprise!”
The gruff angel hovered in the center of her room, trying not to brush any of her hammocks with their giant wingspan, still larger than hers even though they were the same rank now. They grunted, clearly trying not to look too pleased at her joy. “Cherubim Whimse sent me to check on your recovery. I see your full range of motion has returned.”
Lian stretched her wings out to their fullest with a light sigh. “Almost! I still get tired if I’m up for too long, but my strength is coming back.”
“And you are sleeping well?”
“Very well, thank you.” Lian leaned forward eagerly. “My, my, is this a social call, Healm? Are we going to be able to spend more time together, now that we’re both Archangels?”
A spot of color dusted both of their cheeks. “O-of course! You were my subordinate. I’ll be in charge of training you in your new duties now. You’ll have to learn quickly; we lost several good commanders in the last battle, and we have units without leadership now.”
Lian grimaced; she was glad to have been made an Archangel, but she wasn’t looking forward to commanding her own forces.
“And you’re sure that’s the only reason you came to visit today?” She teased. “The duty of seeing to my health?”
“Actually, no,” Healm admitted. “I have another duty, as well. A very important one.”
Slowly, they withdrew a wrapped package from their robes, and Lian frowned. Angels didn’t have material possessions; they didn’t need anything more than their weapons and their robes. “What is it?” She asked cautiously.
“Your new uniform,” they explained. “We can’t have you going around in recovery robes forever. Here.”
They presented the bundle to Lian, who eagerly pulled it open. On the top was an Archangel robe for formal wear and another suited for battle, as well as a badge. She eagerly pulled first the formal robe and then badge over her head before she slipped off the windowsill and performed a lazy twirl in the air.
“How do I look?!”
“Imposing,” Healm said. “Although you’d be more imposing if you were taller.”
“Wha- how dare you!”
Lian pouted at the other angel before the bundle caught her eye again. She’d thought the robes were the only thing in the package, but something dark and solid still remained. She brushed the fabric aside to reveal a small wooden box, about the size of a music box. The lid was locked tight with a golden keyhole.
Healm’s eyes darkened, and they laid a hand on top of the box, keeping her from examining it. “This is the most important thing I give you today. This is your downfall.”
“My… downfall?” Lian instinctively hovered further away from the box. “What do you mean, downfall?”
“Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this is the only thing that can cause your downfall,” Healm elaborated. “It was a compromise made long ago. The burden of command must also come with the burden of choice, and that means we must have a measure of free will.”
Lian looked up sharply. “But angels don’t have free will. That’s what makes us different - and stronger - than humans.”
“Most angels don’t. That is why each of us, every Archangel, Seraphim, and Cherubim, have these boxes.”
“How do you open it?” Lian asked, tracing the keyhole with an absent-minded finger.
“You must never open it.”
Brow twitching in frustration, Lian exclaimed, “Then why give it to me!”
“How best to explain…” Healm said thoughtfully. “Ah, I know. It is like a test, to make sure you are worthy of your position. Inside are the weapons to lead yourself to ruin. You only have to resist the temptation of using them.”
“Why? What’s inside it? Or is knowing part of the test, too?”
“No, I can tell you what’s inside it. This is not a test against curiosity, but rather one against evil.” They held up a hand with three fingers. “Do you remember the three things forbidden to an angel?”
Cocking her head to the side, Lian’s gaze grew questioning. “There’s three? I thought there were only two- hurting another angel, or hurting a human.”
“There is one more, although it doesn’t surprise me that you are unaware. It is the secret tennant, and the hardest to follow, particularly for those who spend time around humans.” Healm’s eyes flashed, and they laid their hands on Lian’s shoulders. “An angel is a pure being, free from all forms of darkness. They must keep themself that way, never giving in to the temptations of human failings and wants. They must never feel the desire that humans feel, not for anything. That is the final forbidden act.”
Suddenly, everything made sense to Lian. Angrily, she pushed Healm’s hands off her shoulders.
“So that’s what this is all about,” she snapped. “You’re still mad that I promised to visit Detta!”
“Do not be so arrogant,” they said coldly, drawing back from Lian’s anger. “You think I would set this up, lie to my fellow Archangel, just for a moment of self-satisfied righteousness?”
“Perhaps not, but you’re certainly willing to belittle me!” Lian retorted.
Healm ground their teeth together. “I only seek to warn you of the dangers to the path that you trod. I am concerned for your safety, as I would be for any of my new colleagues.”
“I’ll be fine,” Lian snapped, hovering with her arms crossed over her chest. “I’m not weak, you know. We are equals now. I earned this position.”
“I know you did, and I respect that. But you were also my subordinate once, and I cannot stop myself from worrying about you.” They flashed Lian a weak smile. “Inside the box are three objects. Each one will allow you to commit one of the acts an angel must never do. Opening the box is not forbidden. But use one of the objects, and you will never be able to ascend any higher in the ranks of angels. Use another, and you forfeit your position as a commander and must return to the lower ranks. Use the third, and a demon will appear, drawn by your weakened spirit, and bargain your life into Hell.”
Lian looked down at the box again, her anger reducing to a slow simmer. “But how would I even open it? It’s locked.”
“The key is hidden inside your badge.” They picked up the badge from their chest to reveal an empty hole. “I removed my key and destroyed it, so I’d never be tempted to open my box,” they added. “I would suggest you do the same.”
Lian found the symbol and pressed it, revealing a golden key tucked inside her badge. Under Healm’s close scrutiny, she picked it up and looked it over, then replaced it, allowing the badge to fall back against her chest.
“I won’t destroy it,” she decided. “This represents my free will. How can I have free will if I destroy my choice?”
Healm only shook their head. “You are free to choose danger instead of stability. That is the curse of free will. But do not let it tempt you into ruin when you are at a weaker point than you are now.”
All of a sudden, Lian felt exhausted. Though they meant well, Healm’s judgment weighed on her shoulders more than her heavy new wings. And really, they had always been like this, she realized, even when they had been her commander. Always perfect, expecting the same from those around them, and radiating poorly disguised disappointment when their impossible expectations weren’t met.
“I want to rest now,” she announced. “It was lovely seeing you, Healm, but I’m not used to company.”
Their eyebrows drew together. “You are angry at me.”
“I’m not- okay, I’m a little angry at you,” Lian admitted. “But I really am tired, Healm. I just want to rest. I’m still recovering, after all.”
They regarded for a few moments longer before nodding. “I will return soon to see how you are recovering,” they said. “Please, rest well.”
With a final nod, Healm left her residence, carefully shutting the door behind them so she wouldn’t be disturbed. Lian tried not to consider the thoughtful gesture as she collapsed into her hammock.
She’d thought that she’d been recovering well, but even that short conversation and flight had taken a lot out of her. Rolling over, she spied the box, still perched on her windowsill.
For a moment, she was tempted to take out her key and open the box, just to see what it contained. Then, with a solid effort, she rolled out of the hammock and moved the music box to a canopy bed near the top of the room. She hardly ever used it, so it would be out of the way.
Part 2: Human
Lian had kept her word and gone to visit Detta as soon as she had recovered enough to make the trip. After that first visit, she crossed worlds as often as she was able, and each time was shocked by how much the girl had grown. Time flowed differently in the celestial world than the human one -- or, at least, an angel’s perception of time differed from that of a human’s -- so the times between her visits on Detta’s end were always different, even though they felt like regular time intervals to Lian. Detta wasn’t a child anymore, but was a charming girl that would soon blossom into a beautiful young woman.
Detta stopped wearing her hair braided when she was eight, prefering to pin the front half up and allow the rest to cascade down her back in finger curls. Whenever Lian visited her, she would allow the angel to play with them, braiding tiny protective symbols into her hair that were easily hidden by her hairpins. Together, they played games such as hopscotch and jump rope outside when the weather was nice, or stayed inside and dressed up Detta’s dolls when it was raining. Lian knew the games were childish and shouldn’t amuse someone like her, but in the human world, she was a child, same as Detta: innocent as any baby and ignorant of the culture she absorbed through the young girl.
Though Lian came as often as she could, every time she arrived, she saw the spark of loneliness in Detta’s gaze. Detta would rope Lian into whatever the afternoon’s fun would be, then cry when she had to leave again. And although Lian was ignorant of many human norms, she noticed the obvious things. Detta never seemed to have any company, and she never told stories about playing with other children, only her Papa.
One day, when they were having a tea party with several of Detta’s dolls, Lian broached the subject.
“How come you never talk about playing with other children? Aren’t there any around here?”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Detta said breathlessly, her grip tightening on the china teacup in her hand. “But they’re all either too rich or too poor to play with me, Papa says. But I’ll be getting a tutor soon, and he’s going to teach me all sorts of things, like reading and writing and maybe even a little maths, so I won’t need anyone to play with!”
Lian couldn’t hide her disappointment. Only eight years old, and Detta had already grown out of her? “Oh. I see. That’s good.”
Panic suffused Detta’s face, then she launched herself over the makeshift tea table and engulfed Lian in a hug. “But of course I’ll need you! You’re my best friend! My bosom friend! I’ll always need you!”
“Thanks, Detta,” Lian hummed, touching a finger to the girl’s nose. “I’ll always need you, too.”
“But…” Detta pushed herself away from Lian, looking down into her lap so she wouldn’t meet her gaze. “You’re… an Angel. A real one, from Heaven and everything! I bet you even know God!”
“God?” Lian tilted her head to the side. “What’s that?”
Giving her a funny look, Detta stood up and waved her arms around. “You know, God! He made everything, like the Earth and the trees and the animals and the humans, too! And even the angels! But the humans didn’t do what they were supposed to do and got kicked out of Paradise, so that’s why we’re here now.”
“So, this God… they created everything? Even you and me?” Lian repeated slowly.
“He,” Detta corrected as if it made a difference. “Why don’t you know this? God is in charge of all the angels! He loves everyone on Earth and is super kind and only wants us to thank him for making us, even though he doesn’t talk to us anymore! At least that’s what Father Hampton says.”
Frowning, Lian considered it. Every rank of angel answered to the one above it: Archangels bowed to Cherubim, who bowed to Seraphim. But who did the Seraphim bow to? Maybe that’s what the humans had decided to call ‘God’. So he loved everyone and was kind to everyone, even though he was distant…? The words reminded her of Healm, who had constantly looked out for her and the other Principalities. Maybe God was like Healm?
“Maybe… but why does that matter? Whether I know them - him -” she corrected herself at Detta’s look “-or not?”
“Because,” she said, her voice full of childhood exasperations. “Because that means you’re important. You’re an Angel. And I’m… I’m just a human. A girl. A woman like Eve, who doomed humanity until Jesus could die on the cross for our sins.”
“Jesus?” Lian asked blankly, but at Detta’s scandalized look she decided not to inquire any further into human religion. “Look, Detta: you’re my friend. You helped me a long time ago, and I’ll never forget that debt. My friendship is the least I can offer you.”
A tiny sniffle was the only warning Lian got before Detta yanked her into a solid hug.
“Of course I helped you! You’re the best friend I’ll ever have!” She wailed into Lian’s shoulder, who patted her on the back and let her cry it out.
A few minutes later, Detta sat back to wipe her nose on the handkerchief she had set out as a tablecloth for her dolls, then her gaze brightened as she caught a glimpse outside the window. “Hey! It’s stopped raining! Quick, let’s get the jump rope before Papa catches us and yells at us for getting our stockings muddy!”
As quickly as the passing weather, Detta’s tears were gone. She pulled Lian through the twisting corridors of the house, overly large for just one little girl, her father, and the single servant they were able to afford.