Content warnings for Part 2 of this chapter include a brief instance of attempted violence against a woman, gun violence, blood, and death.
Part 2: Human
Lian had started carrying around the pistol and hilt instead of leaving them in her living quarters. It was something she knew Healm didn’t approve of, but at least he had conceded once she explained her reasoning to him. The box was ruined, and could no longer be locked. That meant it was no longer safe. The best -- and safest -- place for the instruments, therefore, was on her person.
Lian knew she should cut off all contact with the human world: a clean break so that she could recover what was left of herself. But now that Healm had drawn her curtain aside and destroyed her protective numbness, Lian felt the exquisite longing that came with trying to break a habit. She wanted to fly in the clouds and see the stars, even if she couldn’t see Detta. She’d fallen in love with the human world as much as she had fallen in love with a human girl.
And there were the other angels to consider. Even if Healm had accepted her, that didn’t mean the rest would do the same. Everywhere she went, she was met with confused stares and averted gazes. Sometimes it was easier to float high above the heads of the oblivious humans than to deal with the others of her kind, especially now that she knew the secrets of human frustration, shame, and fear. In the sky, the air was clear and offered no judgment.
The first time was an accident. It wasn’t the first time she’d gone back to the human world, but it was the first time she’d gone close to a human city. They all looked the same to her, so she didn’t realize at first that it was the same city she’d been visiting for the past decade.
And then Lian saw her. Smile bright and eyes dull, walking arm in arm with the man who has stolen her mouth. Detta looked happy, but Lian had known her long enough to tell the difference between genuine joy and her happy mask.
They were walking down a path in a green park, and Lian was grateful that she had hidden herself so none of the humans below could see her. Familiar pain bubbled up in her chest at the sight, but she couldn’t turn away. She followed them until the young man chaperoned Detta back home, passing her off to her father.
Lian only turned away when Detta disappeared inside the house, a place where she couldn’t bring herself to follow. It stank of too many ruined memories. Guilt ate at her core as she decided what to do next. Detta had said she never wanted to see Lian again, and here Lian was, once again seeking out the young woman because she was foolish and weak.
And then Lian realized something. Detta didn’t want to see Lian, but that didn’t mean that Lian couldn’t see Detta. What if she kept visiting her love, but never showed herself?
It was a dangerous line, Lian knew. If she saw Detta, she would want to speak to Detta. And if she spoke to Detta, she would want to touch her, and kiss her, and beg her to reconsider. But that wouldn’t be fair; Detta had already made her decision, and Lian should honor it.
If only she were stronger.
It seemed like every time Lian saw Detta, whether by accident or having sought her out, she was always with that man, smiling, talking, and laughing with pain behind her eyes. It hurt Lian just to see them together, but she couldn’t keep herself away. Healm had stayed with her ever since the first night, keeping watch over her as she slept. When she’d expressed the desire to fly in the human world, he hadn’t forbidden her from going, even if he had expressed his disapproval, hoping to shield her from the exact situation she was now facing.
She never told him about watching Detta, but she had the feeling he knew. The times she flew through the clouds and never laid eyes on a human, she came back calmer. But whenever she succumbed to the self-loathing urge to spy on Detta, she would come back to the celestial world more upset and tangled in her thoughts. This, in turn, would make her long to visit the human world once more, where she would see Detta with her now-fiance and come home even more depressed than before. It was a vicious cycle with no end in sight.
One day, when Lian could no longer keep herself away from Detta, she found herself spying on the young girl as she sat reading. She frequented the library of her fiance’s family whenever she could, finally able to fully satisfy her craving for knowledge. One of the things Lian loved most about Detta was her concentration as she read, the way the skin between her eyebrows wrinkled as if she was afraid of missing a single word. Hiding herself behind a shelf of books, Lian took the rare opportunity to watch her read for hours, uninterrupted by her fiance.
Late in the afternoon, the door creaked open. Detta didn’t notice as a young man peeked inside, then slipped through the open door and shut it behind him. He wasn't Detta’s finance, although he looked a little like him. A smile pulled at his lips as he spied Detta reading on the sofa, and then he fumbled with the doorknob. Lian frowned; she wasn’t sure what he had done, but he was clearly trying to hide his actions, which meant they couldn’t be good.
Lian settled down to watch as the man approached Detta. She didn't look up at his approach, and the man had to clear his throat several times before she seemed to notice him. With a frown, Detta looked up, and that frown only deepened as she seemed to recognize him and folded the book closed in her lap.
“Jerrald. What a… pleasant surprise. To what do I owe this visit?”
If her expression was anything to go by, this Jerrald’s appearance was a surprise, but anything but a pleasant one. He seemed oblivious to her discomfort, leaning against a nearby bookshelf as if he owned the place.
“Do I need an excuse to get to know you better? After all, your engagement with my brother is official now. I’d like to become acquainted with my future sister-in-law.”
Detta shifted in her seat. “It is inappropriate to seek me out without the supervision of a chaperone. Why do you not come with your brother and I on a promenade if you are so inclined to know me? Or perhaps our weekly nights at the Theatre.”
“The Theatre? What a load of bollocks. Just a bunch of people strutting about a stage, acting more important than they actually are.” Jerrald leaned forward conspiratorially. “And if you’re being honest, I bet you feel the same way too, don’t you, Miss Bernadette?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Detta said primly, although her mouth tightened.
“Ah, you’re just too nice to admit it. That’s what I like about you, you know. You’re just so earnest.” He flashed her a smile. “Most girls, they titter and whisper behind their fans, trying to make us men swoon as a game, but you? You’re honest in your words and intentions. If my brother hadn’t snapped you up, I might have been tempted to court you myself.”
Now Lian could tell that Detta was getting very uncomfortable, but she hid it very well, only giving it away in the tilt of her chin. “You flatter me, Jerrald.”
“Not at all, not at all!” He laughed, waving away the comment. “What are you reading? I’m always interested in what a Lady reads. You can tell a lot about a person from the kind of books they prefer.”
Without bothering to give him a response in words, Detta silently held the book up and allowed him to read the name off the spine.
“Ah, the Divine Comedy! You’re a fan of the contrary works, are you?”
“My interest is merely scholarly, not fanatical. I’ve read it before, but I wanted to verify something,” Detta said stiffly.
“Oh, you have, have you?” Jerrald propped his chin in his hand and leaned against the back of the sofa. “Tell me, what do you think of Dante’s version of Heaven, then? Honest opinions only.”
Detta closed the book and gazed at the cover, as if she could see images there conjured by the words contained within. “I’ve never much cared for the Paradise in the Divine Comedy. I think a heaven where one could spend time with their loved ones would be a much happier place to live than an endless view of blinding holy light. To tell you the truth, I’ve always preferred the Inferno to the Paradisio.”
“So you think you’d rather go to Hell than to Heaven?” the man asked with a crooked eyebrow.
“No, no,” Detta said quickly. “Of course I await my eternal reward in Heaven, but I think in this case that the Inferno is more interesting than the Paradisio. I feel like… Dante was afraid of offending God by writing about Heaven but getting any of the details wrong, so he deliberately made it vague. Those extra details went into the Inferno to compensate.”
For a moment, Jerrald just stared at Detta, then he broke into a laugh, slapping his thighs. “My, my, you are an intelligent little thing, aren’t you? That’s a pretty good analysis for a woman.”
“I have always been fond of reading,” Detta said lightly, deliberately turning back to her book, but he stuck his hand over the page to force her to look back up at him.
“I’m curious, I must admit, if you’ve read a favorite book of mine. I would love to discuss it with someone as beautiful and intelligent as you. It’s economic theory, however, so I don’t know if you’d understand it very well.”
Her jaw ticking, Detta said simply, “I have read the works of several different economic theorists over the years. Who, pray tell, is the author of your favorite book? Perhaps I have heard of him.”
“Maybe you could have, if you’re as well-read as you say,” Jerrald mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “His name is Marx. He’s a German economic philosopher. Have you heard of him?”
A slight expression of distaste appeared on Detta’s face, although she hid it quickly. “Karl Marx. He wrote a series of pamphlets on the communal dynamic, did he not? I was not under the impression that he had written a book.”
“It’s fairly recent, so I can’t blame you for not having come across a copy of it yet, though I am impressed you could recognize his name from just his earlier works,” Jerrald said with a gleam in his eye. “I think you would find it an interesting read.”
“I shall endeavor to find a copy, then,” Detta said stiffly. “Perhaps we can discuss it at a later date, once I am as familiar with the material as you are.”
The dismissal was clear to Lian, but Jerrald either couldn’t pick up on the hint or completely ignored it as he leaned threateningly over Detta.
“I think you’ll enjoy hearing about some of his ideas. Please, won’t you indulge me?”
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid-” Detta started, but Jerrald cut her off before she could finish the sentence.
“You see, the genius of Marx is that he really understands the common man. He understands how we never really see any of the fruits of our own labors. I mean, look at me!” He raised his arms wide. “I’m a scribe, but do any of those words that I write ever mean anything to me? No! An economic system made for the common man is the only way for the people to thrive. Don’t you agree?”
He looked expectantly at Detta, who only blinked under his tirade. “I… I can’t really say without knowing more…”
“Of course, of course,” he waved his hands as if brushing the comment aside. “I’ll give you a quick explanation, but don’t worry; I’ll simplify it so that even a woman can understand.”
Detta’s face twisted again, but Jerrald continued to talk over her discomfort. At this point, even Lian was getting irritated, and she wasn’t the one getting insulted.
“My brother could never understand this theory because he’s never had to want for anything,” Jerrald spat, his face twisting before he smoothed it back with a smile. “I was always second-born, second-best. But your family spent time climbing after a social fall, so you should understand what it feels like to want things that should be basic necessities.”
Detta drew herself up. “If you’re insinuating-”
“I insinuate nothing, my dear; I only aim to teach.” Jerrald paced the library with unhurried steps. “The fundamental aspect of communism is the sense of national community, much like a family.The husband works because his wife can’t support herself, and his wife will cook for him because he’s too busy to cook for himself. Now imagine that system scaled up for an entire country. Everyone does what suits them, and all goods and services are shared equally. Wouldn’t that be a perfect system?”
He stopped, clearly expecting his audience to agree with him, but Detta simply held her book up between them like a shield. “I-I think I’d have to read the source material to form my own conclusions. Do you own a copy of this book? Perhaps you can lend it to me. Some other time,” she added meaningfully.
“Ah, but don’t be like that, Miss Bernadette!” Jerrald exclaimed, a hint of something dark in his smile. “We were having such a motivating discussion, weren’t we? I’d love to tell you more about the wonders of communism, particularly the concept of ownership. It would be more than land that all people will share equally. In fact, everything a person owns would be owned jointly! Livestock, pastures, tools, ideas… even wives.”
Lian stiffened at the word, as did Detta, who quickly got out of her sofa. She moved to a nearby bookshelf and pressed her hand to the book spines as if browsing the titles.
“I hardly think that’s proper,” she managed, her expression tightly controlled as she kept her back to him. “After all, a woman is a human being as well.”
“But what is marriage if not ownership? Don’t you agree?” Jerrald came up behind Detta and laid a hand on the small of her back. She stiffened at his touch.
“Jerrald, I would like you to move away from me, please.”
But Jerrald only smiled and pressed closer, brushing his chest against the back of her shoulders. “But why would I? You agree with me that communism would be an excellent system, don’t you? And you are my brother’s fiance, practically his wife. If ownership of all objects is shared, then you would belong to me as well.”
Detta pulled away, and Lian was surprised to see that Jerrald let her go. She fled to the door and tried to open it, but when she pulled on the handle, it didn’t budge. Her shoulders stiff, she turned to face him.
“What did you do?”
“Just a little something to ensure this conversation stayed private,” he said easily.
He reached into a pocket and withdrew a key on a chain. Detta’s eyes went wide as he twirled it around his finger before replacing it.
“I can see why you’re the black sheep of the family,” she spat. “You have no honor.”
“You wound me,” Jerrald mocked, starting a measured walk toward her.
Detta stiffened, but Jerrald seized her wrist with an iron grip, crowding her against the door so she had nowhere she could flee.
“Come now,” he crooned. “Would being my wife be so bad? My brother would take care of you at night, and when he’s gone during the day, I’d take care of you. How does that sound?”
“Let go of me,” Detta said through gritted teeth. “Let go or I will scream and bring everyone in this house running here.”
“Ah, you wouldn’t want to do that, now would you? Not so close to your marriage?” Jerrald grinned as pressed his lips against the side of Detta’s neck. “After all, what would happen if your virtue was called into question? Do you think my brother would still marry you?”
“I’d rather die pure than let you defile me,” Detta snapped, trying to wrench her hand free, but Jerrald only laughed and drew something else out from his pocket.
“Oh, I think that could be arranged as well.” He pushed the object he had drawn from his pocket under Detta’s nose.
To Lian’s untrained gaze, the object looked like the celestial hilts that angels used to conjure celestial weapons from. Then Jerrald then hit a switch on the side. Instantly, a steel blade erupted from the tip and tickled the end of Detta’s nose. He moved the blade so the flat side pressed against the pale skin of her neck.
Detta froze at the feel of the knife against her throat. She didn’t even move when one of Jerrald’s hands wandered a little south of the neckline of her dress.
“And there it is. You women are all the same,” Jerrald sighed, tapping the blade gently against Detta’s skin. “You always cry that you’d rather go to Heaven a maiden than suffer humiliation, but none of you can ever follow through with it. I thought you were different, Miss Bernadette. You understood my ideas. But you’ve disappointed me.”
Lian had been watching this entire conversation unfold with increasing worry, but as soon as the blade had appeared she had had to stop herself from running out and throwing that man to the ground. Detta didn’t want to see her anymore, she tried desperately to convince herself, and besides, that man was her fiance’s brother. He would never actually hurt her.
And then Jerrald tilted Detta’s chin upwards with the point of his knife and pressed his mouth to hers, and Lian saw red.
Boiling fury scorched through every fiber of her being. Lian exploded out from behind the bookcase she had been using as cover, sending a rolling wave of power before her that caused both of the humans in the room to stagger. Pointing a finger at Jerrald, Lian bellowed in her most powerful voice, “Drop the girl!”
Detta’s expression went through shock at seeing Lian, then anger, then relief, but Jerrald simply snorted at the sight of her. “And who are you, some kind of servant? I bet you’re a prostitute, with clothes like that; no decent woman would ever show her calves. Get out of here, little girl, or you’ll take your turn after I’m done with her.”
“I am not a little girl!” Lian seethed, her pointing finger transforming into a fist. “I am an angel of… of…” Who was it that Detta was always praying to? “I am an angel of the Lord, and by His authority I demand that you let her go!”
“An angel?” Jerrald’s eyebrows crawled up his forehead. “I’m sorry, Missy, but you’re going to have to come up with something a little more believable than that.”
Silently, Lian allowed her wings to explode out from her back, nearly filling the small space with their patchwork gray and white. With the wings came a wave of unmistakable power. This time, Jerrald’s eyes did widen in fear, but instead of dropping Detta like Lian expected to, his grip only got tighter.
“I won’t do it, I swear! Just don’t kill me! If you do, I… I… I’ll kill her!”
Lian’s grip fell on the hilt of her celestial blade. “I said, let her go! If you let her go, I will spare your miserable life.”
“No! That’s just what you want me to think!” Jerrald laughed, his eyes going wide and sightless. “An angel, a real live angel, is here to cast me into the pits of Hell! But I won’t go! I’ll fight you the whole way there!”
“I just said that I would spare you! Aren’t you listening to me?” Lian snapped. “Now do as I said and let the girl go!”
“Just go, Lian!” Detta called out desperately. “You’re only making this worse! I can handle it by myself!”
Lian hesitated, torn between following Detta’s orders and doing what her heart told her. Her decision was made for her, however, when Jerrald tightened his grip again and a line of red appeared on Detta’s slim neck.
Drawing her hilt, the celestial blade of the angelic weapon exploded into life as Lian lunged forward, seeking to stab in directly through the vile man’s throat. But when it should have connected, it instead sailed right through him, causing Lian to overbalance. With a curse, she remembered that her celestial weapon could only work on demons, like all celestial blades. The only thing that could harm a human was a weapon made by humans, like the knife Jerrald currently had against Detta’s throat and…
Without wasting time to think, Lian grabbed the pistol from where she’d strapped it to her leg, hidden underneath her robe. Jerrald had started raving, his face blank and eyes wild. Lian would have felt sorry for breaking his mind if he wasn’t still holding a knife to Detta’s throat.
“Am I so holy that an angel’s blade cannot smite me down? Am I untouchable? No; am I the next messiah? This world needs someone to help clean it up, to spread the word of God, and I have been chosen as the new Jesus!”
Lian had never shot anything like the pistol before. She was afraid of missing the larger man and hitting Detta, but it couldn’t be that different from all the hours she had put in learning to shoot her celestial bow.
“I am the messiah!” The man screamed, his eyes wild. “I am the child of God, and I will bring to this world peace and-”
Lian pulled the trigger. The pistol recoiled in her hands, driving her backwards with more force than she’d anticipated, but the man holding Detta captive suddenly stopped talking. A small hole appeared in the center of his forehead before his grip on both Detta and the knife went slack. He dropped both as he fell to his knees, then forward onto the carpet. Lian nearly gagged when she realized that while the front of his head had only a small hole, the back of his skull had been blown clean off.
Detta screamed, long and loud and piercing, and the sound finally brought the happenings of the room to the attention of those outside. Footsteps thundered down the hallway outside, and the voice of Detta’s Father echoed through the door.
“Detta?! What’s going on in there? Why is the door locked? Detta!”
Lian’s vision swam as the pistol pulsed in her grip. It grew painfully hot, almost unbearably so, but when she tried to drop it, her hand refused to cooperate. Hot streaks of fire burned through her body, leaving her to writhe helplessly on the floor as the heat once again began to collect in her wings.
“Lian!” Detta screamed, running to where the angel lay on the floor. “What’s wrong? What’s happening?”
Through the door, Detta’s Father echoed the same sentiment. “Detta! Tell me what’s going on in there! Are you hurt? Who’s in there with you?”
“Please, Father, get help! Hurry!” Detta screamed at the door before turning her attention back to Lian. “My Lord, Lian, what’s happening? Did he hurt you?”
“He… didn't hurt me…” Lian managed through a tight-lipped smile, trying not to let Detta see how much pain she was in. “This is… my own fault…”
“What is it? What’s happening?”
“Angels… aren’t supposed to hurt humans…” Lian gasped out, finally pryng her fingers away from the pistol and dropping it on the floor. Where her hand had connected with the metal, her skin was red and blistered. “This is… my punishment…”
“Punishment? What are you talking about?” Dett asked frantically, pulling Lian up to lay in her lap. “You- you saved me! God can’t be mad at you for that! You said you were saving me under His authority, didn’t you?”
“God… had nothing to do with this. This was all me,” Lian spat. “I just figured that he would be too stupid to know the difference.”
“But that means…” Detta started, then trailed off when she touched Lian’s wings and her hands came away with handfuls of feathers. “Lian! Your wings!”
“I know,” she said through gritted teeth. “That’s what happens when you commit a sin.”
“But I don’t understand! You were saving me! Why is this happening?” Detta started to cry, the tears rolling down her cheeks and landing on Lian’s neck and chest. “Please don’t die! I couldn’t stand it if you died because of me! You’re an angel! You’re so much more important than I am!”
“Don’t say that,” Lian said instantly, fighting off the pain to sit upright. “You’re special, much more than I am. I’m just an angel who wasn’t cut out for her job, but you… you’re a human who saved an angel’s life. That’s a rarity.”
Tears continued to roll thick and fast down Detta’s cheeks. “But I… I’m just a girl! What can my life amount to?”
“Anything you want it to,” Lian promised. Her wings began to prickle as the new feathers started to grow in, darker than before; none of the original white was left, and the grays had shifted until they were black. “Just promise me that you’ll do something with your life that you can say you’ll never regret.”
“I will, I will,” Detta hastily promised, dashing the tears aside with her sleeve. “Just, please don’t leave me! I’m sorry I ever told you to go away! Every day I prayed that God would send you back to me, that I could be good and stave off all my impure thoughts about you if only I could have you back! Please, please, Lian, don’t leave me alone again! I need you!”
Lian’s heart twisted in her chest. She had committed two out of the three major sins that angels could never commit. When she got back to the celestial realm, they would strip her of her rank. And if she didn’t have the rank of Archangel, she would be unable to make it back to the human world to see Detta.
“I… I’m sorry,” she said quietly, prompting a fresh round of tears from Detta.
“What do you mean, you’re sorry? What’s wrong? We can be together again, just like we were before! Right, Lian?”
“I’m sorry,” Lian repeated, pushing herself to her feet. The pain was still high, but she thought that it was past its crest, so she flapped her wings a few times. White feathers scattered over the room, making way for the dark ones that now poked out from her skin. She nearly cried when she saw their color, but she refused to let herself regret her actions. Not when they had saved her love. “But this is the last time we can see each other.”
“No!” Detta leapt to her feet and threw her arms around Lian’s neck. “You can’t go! You can’t leave me all alone! You’re the best friend I ever had!”
“I know,” Lian whispered, her face pressed into the side of Detta’s neck. “And you’re the best friend I’ve ever had. But it’s out of my hands now. Goodbye, Detta.”
Then she stepped back and picked up the pistol. It was still hot to the touch, but it no longer burned her. An experiential flap of her wings proved that they still ached and her newest crop of dark feathers were still coming in, but she should still be able to fly.
The door to the library rattled, and Lian hastily ripped open a portal to the celestial world- the last one she would ever make. Detta tried to hold her back, but Lian twisted away and disappeared through the tear in the fabric of reality just as the door sprung open, revealing Detta’s Father and the two constables he had brought with him. All three of them gasped in horror at the carnage in the library, but only Mr Evens caught sight of the black-winged figure that disappeared into thin air.
They shared a single glance before the portal closed, and Mr Evens nodded. This would be the last appearance of his daughter’s guardian angel. He was going to have to protect her from now on.