Aranes stayed where she was to give him some time to recover from the shock, and when his train of thought shifted onto the right track she turned to look at him.
“Hi, Alex,” she smiled. “What a pleasant coincidence.”
“Is it?” he asked warily. All the same, he smiled, his eyes probing hers deeply.
He looked for the answer in those strange, magnificent eyes which he loved getting lost in, but whose unusual color and brilliance also scared him.
“What do you think?” the Angel asked back, her expression showing that his doubts were well-founded.
“The first I’m sure about. Regarding the second, I have some reservations,” Alex replied.
Behind his smile, a battle waged between reason and emotion. On the one hand, he wanted to wrap her in his arms and give her the kiss he’d been craving since the first moment they met; on the other hand, he knew that this mysterious woman spelled trouble, serious trouble.
“Reservations are often helpful,” Aranes said enigmatically.
“In what way?” Alex asked, his gaze searching her eyes.
“By making us look further into what interests us.”
And there it was; he’d been right. His smile faded from his face and a red sign saying Trouble Ahead lit up.
“Would you like me to look into something for you?” he asked, and prepared himself for a positive answer. Pandora’s, or rather Theodora’s, box—the name didn’t matter since both bore unwanted gifts—was about to open and unleash his worst fears.
“Aren’t you already doing that?” Aranes responded, her tone hinting that she knew what action he had taken.
A second went by before Alex could react to the surprising question. Determined to learn more about the woman who had turned his life upside down, he grabbed her hand and walked off with hurried strides.
“Where are you taking me?” Aranes asked him. The question was purely theoretical. A human reaction might reassure him, because he was really upset.
“Somewhere where we can talk quietly. We have a lot to talk about, we two,” he replied through gritted teeth. They had reached the corner of 5th Avenue and 59th Street. Across from them stretched Central Park. Alex stopped abruptly, forcing Aranes to do the same. “So, what do you want? Coffee or a walk in the park?”
The Angel thought it would be better not to be around people when she told him what she had to.
“I prefer the park.”
“I thought so,” he said, and as soon as the green light for pedestrians came on he strode off again, holding her hand tightly.
They crossed the road and entered the park. Because of the low temperatures, it was empty and its usually busy paths deserted; only one cyclist and a jogger passed them.
The scenery was an ode to the season which, although departing in a few days, allowed no sign of spring to peek through in nature. Tall, thick-trunked oaks and poplars stretched their bare branches towards the sunless sky; a thin, crystalline layer of frost covered the ground, and maples, elms and basswoods were mirrored in the gleaming layer of ice that coated the lake, sustaining the dull and heavy winter atmosphere.
When they had left the road and its noise far enough behind them, Alex jerked to a stop. He turned to Aranes, let her hand go and grabbed her by the arms.
“Who are you? Or should I ask what are you?”
They Angel looked him steadily in the eye, not speaking. She had come to the physical plane to prepare him for what was to follow and this was the best way to show him that there were some things that couldn’t be said.
“What do you want from me?” Alex continued. “Has some competitor put you up to approaching me?”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” Aranes said hurriedly to allay his undue worry.
The storm that had risen in Alex’s eyes seemed to calm and the frothy-wave-like silver streaks in his irises began to roll gently against their deep blue backdrop.
“Fine! Then could you explain some things to me?”
Besides everything else she had to do, the Angel also had to leave hints about her nature. Soon her protégé would replay their discussions and would analyze her every word to reach some conclusions.
“I can’t right now,” she replied, capturing his gaze in hers so that she could send him non-verbal messages.
Her calm expression and steady gaze made Alex wonder. She seemed sincere. But why didn’t she give him a specific answer?
“What’s going on?” he asked, confusion written all over his face. “Tell me, what should I think? You appear out of nowhere, drag me out of an avalanche, treat me as if I’m special to you and then drop me, only to appear out of nowhere again, knowing that I’ve been looking for you. Don’t you also think that all this is a little strange?”
“Yes, it is,” the Angel agreed. “Please, be patient. Soon you’ll have the answers you need.”
Alex would not give in.
“I’d rather have them now, starting with who you are.”
“That question will be answered soon, too,” Aranes replied and rested her palm in the middle of his chest. “Look into my eyes, Alex, and tell me. Do you believe I would ever harm you?”
He looked bewilderedly down at her hand on his chest. It felt as if a wave of warmth passed from her palm into his body, filling him with an indescribable sweetness and wonderful emotions unknown to him until now. He looked up and searched her unearthly eyes for an answer to this transcendental feeling, and found much more. In her effort to calm him and win his trust, the Angel unveiled her soul and let him see how she felt.
Alex saw her eyes overflowing with love and was stunned.
This woman seemed to adore him. It couldn’t be! She knew him so little. To be precise, she didn’t know him at all. You don’t know her either but you’re crazy about her, he thought in response.
“No,” he admitted, now calm. “But I don’t like all this mystery. How did you know I’ve been looking for you, and why doesn’t the cabin’s owner know you?”
“There’s always an explanation for everything”, Aranes replied, her gaze fixed on his. “Isn’t that so?”
“Why don’t you just tell me who you are? Are you really called Theodora? What’s your last name?”
“I don’t have a last name.”
“That’s not possible. Everybody has one,” Alex insisted gently.
“I don’t, because I don’t need it.”
Aranes let a brief moment of silence elapse to give him time to think.
He was looking at her in puzzlement. He didn’t know what to think. He didn’t know anyone without a last name. Where had this woman come from?
“Alex,” the Angel went on. “You have an extremely well-developed intuition. Listen to it and stay calm, no matter what happens.”
Her mention of his intuition caught him completely unawares. Alarm bells started ringing in his head again.
“What’s going to happen? And how do you know about my intuition?” he asked with a bewildered and at the same time suspicious look.
Forced to provide only that information which his mental state could handle, Aranes didn’t answer his question. She went on:
“There are things you cannot see, but can sense. Don’t try to explain everything using reason.”
“If I don’t use reason I’ll go mad!” Alex said with a measure of the irritation that lay dormant inside him and just wouldn’t be expressed in its true form.
He was annoyed with himself for not protesting, and for letting her put his head through the wringer without asking for anything more than the necessary explanations—and yet he was happy they were together. It was crazy, is what it was!
“Being calm and collected in times of crisis is characteristic of a superior nature, and I believe you are one of them,” Aranes told him, wanting to prepare him for what would happen in the immediate future.
Superior in nature was the last thing that Alex felt right then. Reason was bombarding his mind with questions and warnings, and there he stood, helpless to react. He wondered at his calm. He should normally have freaked out when she mentioned his intuition and with everything else she told him. But his will seemed to have surrendered to a hypnotic suggestion. What held him in its grip?
Not having any clue about the supernatural powers used on him, the answer was simple: her exquisite face, captivating scent, divine body and basically everything about her, her intellectual qualities included of course, that drove him delirious with love and made him want to make her his at all costs. It was a good excuse for his passiveness, otherwise why would he be acting like a mentally retarded adult? It wasn’t like him at all…
Lucifer began stalking Alex when drink dulled the image of fragile reality and tamed his reactions. The Demon wanted to take advantage of the fact that under the influence of alcohol people relax their mental defenses and inhibitions and are more easily tricked into doing things that their reason condemns when they are sober. Convinced he had eliminated the competition, the Lord of Darkness would pace behind the despairing man’s chair, citing plausible arguments to convince him to take that desperate step. And as the dark nights passed and the Demon didn’t get what he wanted, his tactics became more aggressive.
Are you still waiting for her to come? he asked him one night, speaking inside his mind.
Yes, Alex told the irritating voice.
He didn’t know who was speaking to him, but he was sure it was some perfidious spirit. The creepy sensation he felt on his nape when it appeared, its efforts to manipulate him and its counsel were irrefutable proof. In the beginning its presence had made him afraid and confused, since he couldn’t understand what it was or how to handle it. After a few meetings he had gotten used to it. Nevertheless, he didn’t like his uninvited guest; he wanted to be rid of it, which was why he stubbornly refused to succumb to the dark spirit’s pressure, hoping that it would give up.
You’re burying your head in the sand. You’re afraid to face reality, Lucifer said. Your fear prevents you from conquering a new type of freedom that will make it possible for you to fulfill your desire.
I don’t need it, I already feel very free, Alex snapped back.
The Lord of the Demons stopped his slow pacing behind Alex’s back and with his hands shoved in his pants pockets he looked at the dark sky outside the balcony door. A faint strip of light on the horizon presaged the coming of yet another day on the earthly plane. The plane that had become his prison, forcing him to take action here to preserve his existence and power.
No one is free, he said, overcome by a feeling of malaise. Everyone is a slave to necessity, and you are no exception. The difference with you is that your needs exceed the limit of what is achievable. You keep on asking for much more than befits a human.
And from all evidence, I get it, Alex retorted, sticking to the essentials. Towards the rest, namely the Demon’s opinion of him and his profound assessments regarding necessity, he was icily indifferent.
From all evidence, you, so charismatic and privileged, don’t either get to have everything; not in this world. You’re deluding yourself if you expect that an Angel will fall to Earth for your sake. Face facts; she’s not coming back, Lucifer snarled, his gaze filled with envy and deprecation.
Alex’s tiresome visitor had begun to annoy him. His mental resilience had weakened and he found it tedious to have the same discussion over and over again every night.
“She’ll come back,” he said out loud through clenched teeth.
And why hasn’t she done it all this time? Is she maybe waiting for you to go to her? the Demon insisted.
“No, she will come,” Alex replied, but a faint doubt hidden deep in the tone of his voice wiped away the conviction in his claim. He wasn’t sure about what he said and hoped that his mental adversary wouldn’t realize it, because then he would never leave him alone.
But the greatest corruptor of the dimensions was very experienced and never missed the vital details on which the success of his schemes largely depended.
He bent to his would-be victim’s ear and taunted him: Do you really believe what you say?...
Alex gave his friend a puzzled look. When he had phoned him in the morning so that they could meet, he’d given him a brief account of the previous night’s events. David’s reaction had been such a drawn-out silence that Alex had thought they’d been disconnected. It made sense for David to be angry with him, but why was he hostile towards Aranes?
Unfazed by how her partner’s best friend was behaving, the Angel chose a seat with its back to the crowd and the three of them sat around the table in a highly charged atmosphere.
“So, he managed to bring you down. What did you sacrifice for it?” David said reproachfully.
“Sacrifice is necessary to achieve one’s goals,” she calmly replied.
“Forgive my ignorance, but I wasn’t aware that an Angel’s goal is to join with a human,” David retorted, his lips curled into an icy sneer.
His friend’s rudeness had begun to annoy Alex.
“David…” he intervened, his tone warning him to come to his senses.
Aranes rested her hand reassuringly on her partner’s and gestured to him that there was nothing to worry about.
“There is a lot you don’t know,” she said to David, her expression showing she understood why he was acting that way.
“Evidently,” David agreed, perturbed.
Something behind Alex’s back caught his attention. A few feet away, a materialized Asmodeus was sitting at a table wearing an eccentric suit and multicolored vest. The Archdemon crossed his legs, flung his long black hair back with a toss of his head and, smiling sardonically, he pulled down his sunglasses and winked.
David glanced at him coldly and then turned to look at Aranes. His eyes warned of danger.
“David, what’s the matter with you?” asked Alex, displeased with his friend’s behavior. “I thought you’d be happy for me.”
David leaned towards him.
“I’d be happy if you hadn’t forced her to do what she did. Do you have any idea what danger she’s in, or do you only care about yourself?” he hissed.
Alex’s blissful ignorance was shattered. He turned to Aranes.
“Is he telling the truth?”
The Angel followed David’s gaze, which was once again pinned on Asmodeus. When her eyes met the Archdemon’s, he smiled at her.
“Hello, princess,” he whispered.
Aranes didn’t need to hear to understand what he had said. She turned to Alex again.
“Yes,” she calmly replied. It was no use hiding it from him. Asmodeus’s presence was a sign that the pursuit would soon begin.
“What can I do to protect you?” Alex asked worriedly.
“Right now you cannot do anything. But there is someone who can,” Aranes replied enigmatically and stood up, putting an end to the brief discussion. “Let us go, I want to see Eiael,” she added and sent Asmodeus a look that said she wasn’t afraid of him.
When Alex’s Aston Martin and David’s white BMW stopped outside the majestic castle where Eiael White lived, she was in the library. Wearing a severe chignon and a long gown that appeared to have been sewn at the start of the previous century, the solidly built Creole woman was seated at her desk and was studying the original of one of Heraclitus’ philosophical texts. Sensing the presence of a powerful force, she looked up in bewilderment. She fixed her gray eyes on the glass doors looking out to the front of the castle and then shot up from her seat.
David had called to let her know that he would be stopping by with two more people but hadn’t mentioned their identity. Could the omission have been deliberate because one of them wasn’t exactly a “person”?
Jean—Eiael’s apprentice, who was as intuitive as her teacher—eagerly opened the castle’s reinforced main entrance door and found herself staring, dumbfounded, at Aranes. She knew that Angels entered the spatiotemporal dimension, but she had never expected to have the privilege of seeing this particular one, especially in corporeal form. She quickly recovered and inclined her head to the high-ranking Celestial. She should actually have knelt, but thought that the two men accompanying the Superior might not know who she really was and that any other show of respect would expose her.
Aranes smiled at the young woman and stepped inside the large entrance hall with its magnificent chandelier and wood paneled walls that were covered with an exquisite collection of old swords. The Angel didn’t need anyone to guide her, the castle’s layout was totally familiar, so she proceeded along the east wing corridor with Alex and David in her wake.
Jean closed the front door and hurried to catch up to them. As soon as they reached the library she opened the door and quickly stepped aside to allow their noble guest and her escorts to enter.
Standing behind her desk, Eiael White stared speechlessly at the incarnated Superior of the Angels regally crossing the large library. She was overcome with awe. Her eyes welled and her limbs felt numb. Once over her initial surprise, she rushed to meet the supreme Celestial in the middle of the room. When she reached her, she went down on her left knee and bowed her head reverently.
“My eyes are honored by your presence,” she said humbly, feeling the blessing of the Superior’s presence warm her soul.
Aranes bent down and clasped her faithful servant’s hands.
“Rise, Eiael,” she said kindly.
The woman kept her head down. She didn’t dare behold the dimensions’ most powerful entity. But as she rose to her feet, for just one instant, she looked into the Superior’s eyes and then immediately lowered her head again. It wasn’t proper for humans to rest their gaze upon Celestials, let alone the highest of them all.
Alex, who was standing a few steps behind Aranes, watched the scene feeling ill at ease.
“Just who is that woman?” he asked David softly, showing the discretion the atmosphere in the room seemed to require.
“She is the leader of the Guardians of Occult Knowledge,” his friend informed him in the same tone.
Eiael White kept her head lowered.
“Eternal Soul, what can I do for you?” she asked Aranes, addressing her with one of her many names.
The celestial entity took hold of the woman’s face and lifted it. The two of them knew each other very well. The Superior had named her after the Angel that taught and protected the occult arts.
The Guardian leader shivered when she met the eyes in which infinite love was mirrored. In her long life—in a few years’ time she would be four centuries old—she had rarely had the opportunity to see her spiritual mother, although she often felt her presence nearby. And when the Guardians faced a serious problem, the high Celestial would appear before her as a vision to offer her valuable advice. She always protected the theurgist warriors that served the Source’s will so that she could make their work on Earth easier.
“Eternal Soul?” Alex repeated in a whisper, as if just realizing what he had heard.
David glanced at him sharply.
“Aren’t you the one who preferred things to be difficult? Well, you got what you always wanted. So, enjoy.”
Eiael looked at David, bemused. As she had suspected, the lawyer with whom she had been on friendly terms for the last ten years was not what he seemed to be. But she never would have guessed who was really hidden behind the human façade.
“It is going to be very difficult for him,” she said, turning back to Aranes.
The Angel nodded.
“I know, but he will have to suffer it.”
David hadn’t heard what the Superior had asked of Eiael because he had been speaking to Alex at the time, but the Guardian leader’s tone and words didn’t bode well for him.
Eiael sensed the presence of negative energy and glanced at the right corner of the room.
Two unwanted guests appeared in ethereal form, wrapped in their dark auras and bringing with them the awful chill their beings emitted…
Lucifer decided the time had come to make his proposal. He didn’t expect to get what he wanted easily. Aranes was extremely intelligent and had a leader’s mentality. If she struck an agreement with him, she would drive a hard bargain for her position in the hierarchy and its associated privileges.
“I’ll give you what nobody else can give you,”the Demon who had turned temptation into an art form began to promise her. “Total domination over the physical dimension. Isn’t that what you always wanted?”
Aranes bypassed his question and tried to mislead him, wanting to get him to prove his intentions. She would gain precious time this way.
“You don’t share anything, Lucifer,”she remarked pointedly. “Especially your authority.”
The Lord of Darkness decided to lay his cards on the table. If he managed to convince her that her powers weren’t what he wanted, or at least not the only thing, then maybe he would convince her that he was different than what she had thought and they could then strike a bargain more easily.
Taking slow, deliberate steps, he erased the distance between them, stood before her and stared into her eyes.
“With you I’ll share everything,”he declared, his expression showing that he really meant it. “Be my queen, Aranes, and I promise you that no one will tell you what to do anymore. You won’t have to experience the final ordeal, like I had to go through.”He paused for dramatic effect. “Pain and despair can split your soul in two. You’ll be wandering through the ruins of your self, searching for who you are, where you belong. You’ll be suffering and searching for a salvation that will never come.”He shook his head, a determined expression on his face. “I won’t allow anyone to subject you to that unbearable torture. Just say ‘yes’ and you will have anything you desire. I’ll lay everything at your feet.”
As a reward for his generous offer, Aranes gave him a sweet smile and nothing more.
At first Lucifer took the smile as a prelude to a positive response. It took him a few seconds to grasp her strategy.
She would avoid making any kind of deal right now. An immediate answer might let him know that she needed him and that wouldn’t help her in their negotiations, or maybe she needed time to further her plans, whatever they were, aided by his protection. The second possibility especially, he didn’t like at all. If she really wanted to gain more time to create a future without him, it wouldn’t end well for her.
His wounded ego rebelled. He grabbed her arm and pulled her towards him. Contact with her body made him feel strangely flustered and it threw him for a moment, but his anger prevailed.
“Be careful, Aranes,”he uttered in a harsh voice, “you’re playing dangerous games. I would hate it if Mr. Meyers happened to be caught in the crossfire.”
Aranes felt her skin burn under his palm, but kept on smiling. Any sign of weakness would dispel her image as a powerful Celestial and it would work against her.
“Unfortunately for you, you have to wait for him to die to go after his soul,”she retorted, struggling to keep her voice steady.
The Demon’s eyes filled with animosity, aimed not at the Angel but at the human she was defending.
“He would already be dead if you hadn’t broken the Rules, but I can do that too.”…