Chapter 8 (pinch 1)

Olivier returned to his body. Despite the near instantaneous trip, the darkness of the post-sunset skyline was still jarring after crawling out of the void between souls. Across the street, he could see the first of Father O’Hugh’s followers gathering for the prayer vigil. They were later than he had hoped. The prayer circle was meant to add an additional buffer to contain any residual problems if his trip had gone badly. Although it was a lot like containing a flood with a bathtub, too little and often too late.

It would provide something of solace for the neighborhood and was quiet enough to be ignored by the Wilks themselves.

His business concluded; he was back to the warehouse in Seattle.

Ireul was in the central chamber moving drives from one rack to another. It was a human affectation far outside of what she needed. Even though the physical machines were necessary for storing, fetching, and compiling the vast amount of information she collected and disseminated through the Third, she could manipulate them at will. It was his own drive to develop human affectations that seemed to have rubbed off on her.

He smiled. It wasn’t always the big victories that merited celebration, the everyday victories of influencing another to act better also mattered.

Ireul left the server chamber and floated out to a summoned chair. Olivier remained standing despite the chair that rolled to his side.

“Why are you smiling? Cracked the case?” she said.

He opened his notebook and sketched an impression of the Wilks s seen from Laura’s perspective. “No. Just amused at you moving your drives around, interacting with more and more of this equipment every time I stop by.”

She scowled. “Maybe I am trying to get into your head. Knowledge is my domain, and your experiences have a certain novelty to them.”

“Tell yourself what you must. I’ve got a few new leads. The Guardian we’ve been looking for is Ahiel. See that it is passed to O’Hugh and Harahel.”

Ireul flicked her finger as if she was scrolling through a screen. “I’ve sent those updates. Any reason your time is too precious to do it yourself? You tend to enjoy the in-person exchanges.”

“I’ve got other things to deal with now. One, there was a second angel. The assaulting entity.”

Ireul scrunched up, folding her arms above her crossed legs and balling up in the chair. “I note you didn’t say ‘infernal’ as part of that description.”

Olivier kept sketching elements of the thought-scape into his journal. “It was clearly a divine being, but one with less than divine intent. I didn’t get an ID or a read on the Office. It is less important at the moment.”

“Burying the headline isn’t your typical response.” She sent the chair behind Olivier back to its place.

“There was a third figure in Laura’s psyche. It was protecting her from the effects of the battle. It seemed to be protecting her from more than just that. It may have been the source of her less-than-ordinary conception.” He didn’t give Ireul a chance to respond before continuing. “I saw its face. I don’t’ recognize it but I can. I need to see the faces.”

Ireul floated out of her chair and sent it away. “You came her to ask me about the Library of El? You know that’s not a good idea.”

Olivier put the journal away. “I can get to the antechamber. I can’t be certain I’ll get through the right door.”

“Do you need someone else to go? I can get you a few sympathetic candidates here in moments.” She floated near him, calling up a tablet with a list of names encoded on it.

He shook his head. “No. We need to keep this loop as small as possible. If the Host is trying to finish the job, or called for the action, I can’t have them realizing its not done.”

Ireul dismissed the tablet. “Then just call Raguel and be done with it. You can always trust that he doesn’t care enough to hand the information to anyone else.”

Olivier rummaged in his bag and produced the medallion he had taken from Larua’s bedroom. “If I don’t manage to come back, call him up and give him this. Tell him what we have so far. But for now, we can’t risk letting him interact with an unknown. For all we know, this third visage is on his hit list, or he’ll see her as a threat. If I were in his position, I might deal with all three just to keep the girl safe.”

Ireul took the medallion and shoved it in her pocket. “I’ll give you a couple of hours then. Three tops.” She tried to smile but couldn’t force it. She relinquished the attempt with a long sigh. “Blaeh. Fine. The last rumor that passed through my network pointed to the Library of El being somewhere in the Dasht-e Lut desert of Iran.”

Olivier nodded. “And the ancient city of Shahdad. Of course. It’s always popping up in the remains of some civilization or another. I’ll head that way. Three hours?”

Ireul was already drifting back to the server cores. “Three. Then I call Raguel to do something about this his way.”

Olivier stepped forward, leaving the dark, climate-controlled warehouse for the searing heat of the desert. Winds blew shards of fine sand all around him while the fine salt-laden sands baked at the hottest surface temperatures on the planet. For those that conceived of Hell as a place of heat and fire, this was the closest terrestrial facsimile.

Olivier didn’t blink or shield his face. He was too far from people to bother, and he was focused outward. The air smelled strongly of the remains of the sea that once covered this area tends of thousands of years ago. The salt and the heat both carried memories. Heat brought the sounds of battle to mind, the clash of heavenly hosts that peeled the skies and blighted the Elysian Plains. Salt was his tomb for so long, buried in the cliffs and caves of Ireland where he had slumbered for thousands of years.

He strode forward, walking into the desert as much as away from his thoughts. All around him the ruins of the proud city of Shahdad mingled with the Kalouts, great sandcastles carved by the wind. The people of Shahdad took the already beautiful formations and carved deeper, forming abodes. Of course, the winds were intermittent then, blowing seasonally to bring change and allow for crops to be harvested in the rich soils of the now barren landscape.

The wind hadn’t picked up over time due to natural erosion. This was yet one more place that forces from On High used to demonstrate their might. Beyond the horizon, Olivier could see the teams of angels fanning the desert so that nothing could take root again, their Offices shining like waves of heat lapping at the sky.

The desert stretched for a hundred kilometers in any given direction, terminating the cliffs to the west and a river far to the east. It changed names as it wound north and south, but geology didn’t adhere to strict ideological or political borders. The Library of El would be beneath the sands, occupying a metaphysical space that could come and go, that shifted locations and appearance according to a divine command that Olivier was not privy to. This was the deep end of the order of Creation. The grand design and mysterious ways in which works were done.

A thread of cold dread wound through him as he trudged across the burning landscape. It was easy to feel less like an agent of the Creator and more like a pawn in a rigged game. But Olivier had already faced enough doubt for one case. Others could see themselves as mere cogs turning according to command and design. His was a different path, to influence other cogs and to facilitate the only true freedoms of the Design. And today that meant finding Satarel, the angel of secrets and elusive knowledge.

Though majestic, the many Kalouts, valleys, dry lakes, and plateaus that decorated the area began to feel similar. It would be easy to walk through the area for days and feel as if no progress had been made. The shifting of the sands was not as severe as some of the windblown dunes elsewhere in the region, especially to the far south where waves of sand could bury a structure in hours, but it did enough to shave away the lower landmarks. The sands shifted from brown to white and back as the salts integrated with the volcanic rocks that gave the soil its richness but also swept away any seed before it could sprout.

Even the keen observational powers and excellent memory of a being such as Olivier could get mired in this place if they relied only on sight. Instead, he counted each step and each directional turn, building a map of precise coordinates and even strides. The simplest way to cover the entire area would be to form a perimeter and then a grid and walk the area in ever smaller squares. Given the landscape and the size of the area, this approach would take months.

Sight and memory weren’t the only tools available to him. He had already taken stock o the smells and the sensation of the heat but there were distinctions that could be made in sound that reached beyond the immediate area. He strained to detect something beyond the whipping of the wind and the grating of sand displacing other sand.

Everything became louder as he strained, then quieter as he filtered out each persistent sound. Underlying the rest of the soundscape was a series of whistles. The movement of particles through the carved-out remnants of Shahdad generated a discordant symphony. He paced forward, honing the acoustics. The tones grew in depth, more voices joined the chorus, some sounds diminished or faded to nothing, and others shifted in pitch becoming clear, harmonic.

Olivier quickened his movement, floating over the sands and zipping a kilometer of distance in seconds. The sound grew louder and more coherent as he traveled west. The lower tones settled, thumping out a metered rhythm while the treble notes danced and played through the winds. As he moved north the sound became blunt and warped. He drifted south and the song became clear, robust. At length, he stopped at a point and turned to the sound. Here, in a clearing nestled among three great plateaus and two distinct spires, he could hear the whole refrain. It was a haunting dirge made of pan flutes and reeds and subtle bells.

He listened as it repeated through twice. Though intriguing, the song held no special meaning for him. It was not something he had heard before. He considered further, putting the notes onto a staff inside his notebook. The letters of the notes did not spell out a message. He considered the major and minor chords, the possibility that the meter and bars would direct him a set number of steps to a specific destination.

He considered the notes on the page. It wasn’t clear, but there did seem to be a pattern. He wrote out the next set of notes, duplicating the staff from one page to two pages. The notes did not spell anything out themselves but spread across the gutter of his notebook they left a distinct symbol in the gaps around the center. It was an Enochian rune for prayer. Unlike the spoken version, it did not carry the power and essence of the speaker but it conveyed information all the same.

Olivier noted that he was early for the morning (name of prayer) prayer, so he waited until the hour struck. He crouched close to the sand, assuming the prayer position of the land. He faced the appropriate direction and spread his fingers down into the sand. Even in the early part of the day, the sand was already hot nearly 60 Celsius. Facing Mecca, he began walking sixty paces. On the sixtieth footfall the world around him shifted and he was transported to a small, earthen-brick room.

The room was five meters by five meters with a low ceiling. Olivier could barely extend his elbow to his shoulder before touching the rough-hewn stone above. A brazier blazed with a smokeless fire at the south end. The north wall held two heavy doors seemingly crafted of two single pieces of marble. They were divided by a few inches of the same earthen brick that covered the rest of the space. These bricks were a hard brown, tinged with flecks of white and stripes of red. They were regular in shape but riddled with tool marks along the outer edge where they were removed from molds.

The floor was also rough-hewn stone covered in cured animal furs and large fibrous fronds that ran along the bottom corners. These gave an aromatic, almost spicy scent to the chamber. Olivier took in the details as they presented themselves, not showy and ostentatious but possessing a sense of craft and care. The chamber had changed very little in the centuries since he had last stood here. A few more skins, a new crop of fronds, and a few more streaks of red baked into the walls.

He faced the doors to the north. “I am Olivier, self-proclaimed angel of Redemption and acting leader of the Third Host. I seek Satarel and knowledge both esoteric and secret. I hold no enmity or loyalty to the powers Above or Below, grant me passage.”

His words emerged, a great staff of black with golden letters curled on top. The swept to the doors, scurried around the ceiling and danced in the fire’s light. The grew in intensity as they moved, darkening, embossing themselves onto every surface until the whole room shook with the reverberation of sound and bathed in the dark glow of golden light.

The last time he’d been here was before making his pledge, before taking over as the leader of the Third. Before he had found purpose. The door that opened for him was not the Library of El but to the shadow library of Sartarel. He learned many things from that encounter, not the least of which was a view of himself that he had not dispelled. The diving line between the two libraries was not the knowledge one could obtain, but more the texture with which it was served. Esoteric and forbidden knowledge are, as Harahel once explained, the difference between the elation of pleasure and the pit of regret. You were never so certain which one you had until the other gave it context and texture.

Olivier knew, or at least told himself, that the Third was always part of the Plan. The Grand Design of Creation. But unlike the champions of the other sides, it was appointed no leader and given no name, no sanctity of form. It was to operate differently, so its conception and presentation were also different.

Standing in front of a binary set of doors gave him pause in that belief. There were a few other elements of Creation that also favored the binary and that stewed inside him. He took further solace that trinities and triumvirates were more represented. Heaven and Hell both offered a three in their leadership and domains. Atoms were forged of three particles. Observable reality functioned along a straightforward conception of height, depth, and width.

But doubt was never far away from Oliviers mind.

His words faded, taking their light, and that of the brazier, with them. He did not allow himself to count or to remember time in this moment. Angels had a perfect sense of space and time, where they were and when it was. They used these concepts to travel, to interact, to be. They were woven in like threads of a finely tailored robe. But they could be suppressed with some effort.

Waiting for an answer from the doors was agony enough without a perfect metronome clicking out the fractions of fractions of a second between the question and the response.

Finally, the sound of a door shifting. A great stone slab building up friction and heat as it moved against other unyielding blocks. If there was a light beyond the door, he did not see as he found that he had closed his eyes and could not bring himself to will them open. He allowed time to return. He let go of the earth and gravity, floating up and letting the change in pressure suck him forward.

“You won’t get answers if you’re too afraid to look at them,” said Satarel, crouching next to him. “Certainly not going to beat your self-imposed deadline that way. Must you make everything harder on yourself?”

Her voice was bright, chipper even, but old and wreathed in the dust of wisdom. There was a tedium to her words that tore at the edges and left the impact dulled, almost ephemeral. These were the words of the keeper of esoteric secrets, a loud whisper that dared you to hear and forbade you to repeat what was said.

Olivier opened his eyes and stood up. His joy at arriving the in the Libry or El was displaced by how heavy his body felt.

“No Offices here, other than mine. Too close to the edge of things to have the balance tampered with.” She was shorter than him but only by a head, her face concealed by the hood of a heavy brown robe. She carried a gnarled oak staff in her left hand. A hand wrinkled with age and scarred by a burn. Her right hand was smooth, youthful, and flaxen in color. She held it out to him expectantly.

He took her hand, cradling it between his own. “Do you know why I am here, what I seek?”

She laughed, a strained, violin of a sound enchanting and weighty. “I do not tell the future or the past, I know secrets. The reason you are here is no secret, so I know it not. But the answer to your questions, that I will know for I know only what others do not.”

She led him along a dark passageway threading over echoing stone through countless shelves of old tomes. Their path was lit from above by candles and hanging braziers. The light was diffused, enough to see the shelves and floor but hardly enough to read by.

Not that they stopped at any shelves. They walked past row after row. Even with a memory as excellent as his, the lack of spatial and time awareness began to take its toll. The scenery shifted from one same column to another, from one shelf of red bound books to a second to a nth. He was becoming tired, not for the first time but certainly from the least amount of effort across the shortest time. As he flagged, catching his foot and stumbling forward, Satarel laughed her violin tones and pulled him harder and faster along.

At length they arrived at a magnificent door. Wooden, inscrolled with gold and silver. Even without his powers Olivier knew this door, or at least, the wood it was formed from. This was a fragment of the tree of Eden.

He looked closer. It was not a fragment, but a root. The door and its frame were alive, growing and breathing in the dim light.

Satarel let go of his hand and gestured him forward. “You shouldn’t be surprised; it is knowledge you seek. Knowledge to decide between various fates. A third path out of the binary. What is this door,? What is this tree, if not a seed of the answers to all such things?”

Chapter 7

Olivier stood on the roof of the Wilks’ townhome and looked across Georgetown. The long shadows of an early spring sunset could slice like daggers into the remains of a day. He looked to the fading light, to the angel Shamshel who was the terrestrial harbinger at the leading edge of the sun, pursued at all times by the shadows of night even as it pursued them. Shamshel was one of the least human of the Third, always in Full Office and always moving. Leliel, on the other hand, came across as shockingly human and inhuman, the revolving sweetness and brutal reality of its demeanor a testament to the power of the night to provide succor and enhance danger. 

Olivier allowed himself another moment to contemplate the gears he could see all around him. For many humans Creation was a spectacular show of the love of a God without peer. To others it was the majesty of a cosmic event that unfurled in precise ways, doing what it could because no other alternatives could have existed. For Olivier, he could not speak for the rest of the Host or the Third, it was a wonderful combination of the two, the fingerprints of the Creator touching every gear as it spun in its inevitable path, guided and assisted by a dedicated agent holding to their duty.

He took a deep breath. 

It was time he took the next step in his own path. Redemption may not be the most obvious of Offices in terms of function and duty, but to Olivier it was more important than anything. It was the central gear that made everything else necessary. What was Creation without choices and what were choices without an intermediate step, a place where do and do not could pass each other without malice but operate with autonomy and understanding.

He shook his head. Even to himself it came across as pretentious postering, but it was hard to be profound without being a little silly.

He had delayed long enough. He descended to Laura’s landing silently. She paid him no mind as he settled into the space behind her and began building the ritual. 

First, he would need to construct a circle, a specific ring of runes and archaic symbols meant to keep his essence from leaking out. The heavy metaphysics of being a divinely crafted, fundamental force were enough to melt some beings from head to toe. The very molecules that held together reality balked at fully grasping some elements of the divine. Though not conscious, they acted according to rules and seeing those rules violated caused them to react, and to react poorly.

Olivier could perform such a ritual by a combination of natural inclination and time-honed knowledge. Any of the angels could transfer their Office and move their essence with but a thought. But those transfers were meant to be permanent. To make them temporary took a good deal more planning and knowledge and that was why Olivier was building a circle first.

Typically, this process would be done by carving or drawing the necessary symbols onto the ground or walls. Tampering with Sandalphon’s binding seemed a poor choice, so Olivier worked around it. To not take advantage of the latent energies that teemed through the binding, would also be a mistake. Olivier formed the first symbol into the binding near the center of the fire escape. This would anchor him to it and anchor the spell itself. While this did have a slight chance of pulling him through to the void beyond, it also gave him a powerful thread to follow back if he became lost.

He put the other symbols, as well as the sacred geometry of the circle itself, onto a set of parchments he had brought along. Each parchment was connect to the other via a string of natural fiber woven together with a precious metal. This coherently held each element in the matrix he was creating but provided him a stop-gap in how the circle could be destroyed. 

It is a common misconception in media that a magic circle becomes powerless once it is interrupted even a little. The energies don’t quite work like that. While some did lead to a type of explosive decompression, rushing out the thinnest side at the first tear, most others lingered and held, scarring and imprinting until forced out. His circle could withstand multiple failures and still be technically viable as long as the original anchor held. Depending, of course, on if he was lucid enough —powerful enough—to mitigate the missing pieces. It was like leaping from one platform to another on a river while trying to stay dry. It was easier with a bunch of connected logs in the form of a boat, or a raft, but it was still possible to flume a mighty river if you wanted it badly enough. Keeping his essence from being shattered and dissipated was a powerful motivator, as was seeing the mission through.

The symbols were borrowed from numerous traditions and religious structures. Each a component of a truth adhered to throughout the centuries, each a fragment guessing at a whole. Creation was not a single, brute force object but a myriad plethora of a mosaic of interwoven strands resting together and bolstering each other in a tensegrity chain of belief, force, and purpose. To use the energies of Creation in such a way was not unlike building a new hub on the great web of the cosmos. Vibrations spread through the gossamer alerting the attentive.

And the predatory. 

This is where the humans had latched onto a core component of what magic was, or at least how it functioned. The Internet was also a series of interconnected elements. Each operated on its own but gained strength from others. Some elements radically changed the functionality, some merely bolstered. Others were redundancies, backups and fail-safes. Still others created misdirects, bouncing useful information from one node to the next in a daisy-chain of causality that was nearly impossible to decipher. 

The encryption of magic came first in the forms of sympathetic power, objects and names inexorably linked. Codes and passwords were not a thing to know, they were a thing to become. But magic made many things possible, especially temporarily. To this end, Olivier encrypted his magical matrix all the while forming a skeleton key that would let him, if only for the briefest of seconds, become Laura and share her world. 

There, he would find his answers.

Olivier completed the circle and moved into he second phase of the ritual. Getting back was about keeping the right energies in and the wrong energies out. Getting to a destination was about breeching the same protocols that someone else had put in place, whether by design or happenstance.

Olivier looked at the girl and calmed his racing mind. The art of infiltrating a person’s consciousness benefited from a careful approach. A maze built intentionally could harbor many traps, dead ends, and misdirects. But it also followed a set of patterns, a meta game. The adherence to rules created weaknesses and predictability. A maze formed over time, of natural processes, offered different challenges. The dangers would be less severe and the pathways fewer in complexity but there was no meta game, no mind to read, no actions to predict.

Laura’s psyche was under duress, perhaps buried, perhaps shattered. The machinations of the attacker and the protection of the Guardian all added to the turmoil. What little Olivier had learned about all three gave him more doubts than insights. The trip into Laura’s psyche would be a fusion of both natural and unnatural defenses and the terrain was likely to veer and careen where the personalities overlapped and bled through.

He sat in his circle, ceased his breathing and awakened his Office bit by bit. He was not here to confront the energies and entities within the girl outright, as that would result quickly in her death and dissipation. He needed to be strong like an arrow in flight, looking for a target, withstanding the wind, and twisted around an axis of applied forces.

His feet burned with a cold, dark fire. His mind lit up with a golden halo. At his side a sword throbbed and shimmered, threatening to materialize. He pushed the thoughts of fighting and victory to the side. He focused only on the trip before him. He was not a warrior, not today, but a thief working its way into the very heart of a home, scouting for security and valuables. The sword steadied, fading to a dim outline, present but unobtrusive.

He concentrated, the outline of his wings traced into the twinkling evening light and began to fill out. AS he formed the Office he pushed, moving the spectacle of the transformation outside of himself and toward Laura. His clothes faded but remained. His body quaked and floated but remained planted. His true self took flight bearing down onto the small, stricken girl.

A white flash buffeted his being as he pushed further in. Leaning into the threads around him he felt the slight shift of his being coming loose. He could see the anchor, his body, Laura, and the gateways between that connected all with the Love of the Creator. It loomed larger, a single thread that became a cable that became a beanstalk, a space elevator connecting the planet to the space beyond.

Olivier drifted at first. This served two purposes. First, it kept the aura around Laura’s psyche from detecting aberrations as he tried to pass himself as her. The second purpose was simply to acclimate to the surroundings. A psyche is an individual construction. Beyond complex, they can take any shape and form, twitching from one impulse to the next, resetting by arbitrary rules. Traversing a foreign psyche was made all the harder by one’s own expectations and patterns. And, in this case, the buffets of uncertainty and influence of other presences attempting to overwrite and wrest control of the space.

The outer layers of a psyche held together in great crystalline sheets. They weren’t permeable so much as filled with holes and jagged recesses that allowed information in, filtering and sifting as bias and dissonance removed what couldn’t’ be handled and funneled the desires and preconceptions ever forward. These crystalline layers shone brightly in colorful hues of blue and purple and white. The most perceptive of people, the emotionally sensitive and empathic types, could see this outer layer as a multi-hued spectrum of colorful auras. They saw but one of the aspects, which sometimes, but only barely, managed to convey information that would be misconstrued and misinterpreted into a shadow of reality.

Olivier sped up as he approached the crystalline barriers. This would be the first test of his skeleton key.

The shape of his being was only partially perceptible to him. If he focused to much on how he was, who he was, it could create semi-permanent changes. Nothing beyond repair but shifts and contortions that would make his reentry into his own being challenging, if not impossible.

The structures around him shifted, and he passed through one and into the next. The passage brought with it shocks of sensation. Smells, thoughts, memories, aspirations. The outer most layers of the psyche were places of uncertainty. The testbed of ideas and assumptions. Passing through the keyholes was less difficult then it would be further in, but the journey was turbulent, jumbled.

Olivier opened himself up to accepting suggestions of the stimuli. The more he understood about her wants, her desires, her fears, and her struggles, the more likely he was to make adjustment further in and to understand what was happening to her.

Flashes of darkness and piercing bursts of light buffeted him. Great stretches of nothing occupied the spaces where hopes and wants should reside. It was not a complete void, but it was far more sparse than a child should be, this was the outer psyche of the terminal, those who had turned inward and no longer gave thought to a tomorrow.

Beyond the outer psyche came the threshold of self, the layers defined not who one considers being but who one presents to being. The holes were getting snugger as the filters ramped up. Looming above the rest of the minute sensations were two dominant presences: Elizabeth and James.

The parents acted as great wellsprings of information, of tastes, preferences, and restrictions. Here, Olivier noted the first dichotomy.

Elizabeth was powerful, a presence a magnitude larger than James. She bore with her the rules and restrictions, the ways a life should be lived and the tenants of old money and high society that breed children of quiet respect toward elders and traditions. Even for a child of barely seven, the rigid thinking of sit and be quiet, do as one is told, don’t express and emote were all setting in.

This was not the entirety of influence coming from Elizabeth. The art, the beauty, the quest for a zenith of expression and truth also flowed out. The dissonance of these views rubbing against each other did not completely filter out the contrary but the intersection of the barriers created strain, slicing some ideas to pieces as they tried to pass through, leaving incoherent, disconnected shards to drift further in.

Then there was James. A lesser figure, but still a prominent source of filtering and influence. James was warm, contrite, willing to please. In places this fed into Elizabeth’s instruction to sit and be quiet and to do as one is told. In other places it chipped away at the little bit of expression and beauty. James also offered positive contributions. The rigid mathematical thinking, the seeing beauty in things that are functional and correct. The joy of pleasing others through diligence and giving one’s time and effort to a group whole. These barriers pushed and threaded through the ones set by Elizabeth. Sometimes creating friction and other times finding their way through gaps and crevices, interweaving and coloring the impressions that worked through the vanishingly small gaps.

Olivier maneuvered carefully, looking for the largest hole to pass through without shearing and without contributing to a fraught, tense system. He found the place that was widest and most inviting, the innocent portal of love and understanding that a child held. This was open to all things coming down from the parents, and though the areas around it were mulched and knotted, the gap was still receptive.

It also bore a scar. Something tinged with flame and fury had come through. Chips along the edge were held in place by a gossamer field of unknown providence.

He passed through to the inner psyche, the areas of private thoughts, solidified concepts, and embedded ideals. Beyond this point would be the intimate of intimates and the secrets held from the self. Normally, this landscape would be all but completely filled in, a bedrock with sprouting ideas that would become more complex over time, building on the roots and thickening into ethos, pathos, and unshakeable moral constraints.

The area was not flat. It was buckling vertically, pushing in from the inner psyche and mashing against the filters of the outer. The private parts of her consciousness were overflowing and the weight of the secrets she bore were pushing out everything else. Typically, trauma had this effect but in specific areas. This created pinch points of neurosis and aberrant behavior. But this was a totality, a surge across all of her being.

Getting through the final barrier to the core of Laura’s psyche undetected was now nearly impossible. Olivier could punch through the barrier and blast open the dam, or he could find some space not yet fully blocked off. Breaking through carried enormous risks. It was unlikely, given the pressure, that he would be able to seal any tear before it cascaded. And even if he did, he would have to find a way back out.

The one thing he couldn’t do was nothing.

He sped up, bobbing with the buckling waves like a frigate about to capsize in a storm. There had to be an entrance. Some small area where the inner self was leaking out, was putting some kind of effect into the world. The girl was mostly catatonic, dispassionately sitting on her makeshift balcony. There she cajoled passersby, beseeching them for lewd acts and money.

Olivier contemplated the avenues this could provide while shifting his metaphysical weight to stay between the bulging waves. Laura demanded money for her supposed acts, which could represent a desire for profit, to show mother that she was capable of handling and earning. It could be a desire to please people, echoing her father’s contrite ways. It could also be the signs of precocious puberty, or early Tourette’s.

He winced, considering his options. He had asked about the couple’s spirituality and religious adherence because of the obvious possession signs but had failed to ask about any history of mental illness or genetic conditions. A fine fake psychologist he was proving to be.

He didn’t have time to parse all of the percentages. Sexual desires were hire functions but the drive to reproduce was hardwired. Laura had been born to a woman past menopause. Surely there was something going on there. He proceeded to the basal instincts.

The damage in the area was extensive, bulges of pressure pushed into the filter. It was not completely blocked but it was far from open.

Olivier made his way through, carefully. All around him the channel thrummed with sounds and creaked with fury. Beyond the filter were a great number of valved hatches. Some were physiological in nature, others cultural, and still more handed down from parents. But the last few were self-created.

The outer doors were simple enough to traverse. These opened and closed as random impulse caused a person to reconsider their drives, their instincts, and the influence they allowed the outside world to hold. The inner doors would require a deeper understanding of Laura’s views. And he knew only what others had told him. The external views were rarely useful for such a purpose.

An older couple, a separate floor for the child, that old money New England repression. The most Laura likely knew about her own views of physical love would be linked to the core emotion. She knew she loved her parents, and she knew that they loved her, even if the expression of that love would someday be called into question.

Not everything true is profound or complicated, sometimes it’s the simplicity that marks a truth. The inner doors opened. Olivier arrived at the very core of Laura’s being.

The core of a person was a fascinating construct. Many were idealizations visions of their life, inextricably linked with what they did and who they associated with. A mechanic might see himself in an endless garage, a warehouse of parts and oil and revving engines. A writer would sit in a library with a typewriter and the visions of characters performing in a thought space before them. A child might have a play room or a garden, a place they perceived as safe and fun. The introverted were alone, festooned with things that made them feel safe and loved. For others it was an endless gallery of faces and moments hung on the walls, snapshots and reels of their connections.

Olivier’s expectations for Larua’s core were grim. The reality was far worse. Lara sat as she did in the external world, dangling her legs off a fire escape mired in the center of a blasted landscape. She was disconnected from herself. The spherical walls loomed and pressed in, bathed in frantic fire light and smoking shadows. The fire escape connected to a fading portal, wisps of a world beyond that she didn’t seem to notice.

Two angels in full Office fought endlessly around her. They clashed with sword and blade. They danced, they flew, they attacked and defended. Swirling combinations of flaming swords tinged with golden light and the heat of the divine. They fought with relentless strength. Their shouts and clashes reverberated in the confining space and Laura winced with each blow. The room rumbled and shook as they spun past each other and paused and resumed.

They each bore wounds. One was leaking essence from a thousand small cuts and a great gash about the abdomen. The initial blow that began the conflict, no doubt. The other was missing most of its head. A grim, determined jaw and sneering lips missing everything above.

The bled, as much as such being do, their essence leaking into the surrounding area blanketing it with primordial energies. Without direction, without a will, a duty these energies acted as all such energies do, they sought purpose and shape. They fought to BE.

They were losing that fight. No matter the victor of the actual battle, it was clear the damage was substantial. The moment that either Office shattered, the energies would implode and take Laura with them. The bindings of Sandalphon would contain the energy from damaging the rest of Creation.

The angel with the grievous wound was the Guardian. Ahiel. This close and with his badge in sight it was instantly obvious. Ahiel, Brother of God, one of the Guardians tied to Kafsiel, she who governed the life and death of kings. Ultimately, she was also a bearer of the standard of Gabriel. Larua’s birth, though strange and rare, could have been chalked up to the randomness of human biologics but this confirmed it was part of some greater intent.

The other warrior was not so identifiable, the lack of a face made the truth of the eyes impossible. Its badge was obscured by some power that he could not perceive beyond. What he was certain of was that the were no infernal energies here. This was a divine being locked in a death battle with a divine Guardian.

His presence was noticed. He was, after all, Laura. But a Laura outside of the center, outside of the contested space the Guardian defended. The unknown angel struck quickly, abandoning all pretense of defense against Ahiel to deliver a death strike. Olivier could not defend himself, not without overloading the space and sparking the overdue implosion of writhing energies.

Then he saw her.

A face, so subtle it didn’t register even to his keen observations. It was a lovely, motherly face. The face of something beyond divine. Something that Olivier had felt but never seen. It was a visage of gossamer and half remembered dream. The warmth and afterglow felt when waking up from a pleasant memory or the spark of reconnecting with an old acquaintance. It was this voice that had spoken to him on the fire escape. The identity scrambled with the leaking essence and spilled onto a page of discordant tone.

It shone brighter, for the briefest of moments. Not fully formed, but a fraction more present. The force of this shift blasted Olivier out of the way of the assailant’s strike. It blew him through the inner psyche and out of Laura’s being entirely.

He caught himself, slamming and lurching at the end of his anchor like a climber short roped to a cliff. He floated there, catching his mental breath before following the thread back to his own essence.

He had seen a face. A face he did not know. But impressions were not something that could be easily dismissed or erased. Whatever, whoever, that face was, Olivier knew where to get answers. He would need to seek out Satarel and the Library of El.

Chapter 6 (rough)

Olivier stood at the end of the block leading to the Wilks’ house. He changed his black and blue attire to grey and red with darker slacks than his overshirt and dress shoes for his sneakers. He considered a vest but didn’t want to come across too professional now so as to come across slovenly the day before.

He walked with purpose past the two houses at the end to reach the Wilk’s house proper. Laura was in her nest on the fire escape catatonic as ever. She did not call out as he approached but watched him move with a subtle lock of her eyes to his. It was rather like an owl watching a mouse in the moonlight.

The front door was open. Worse. They were forced open by a crude barrier. Olivier could see the shoddy craftsmanship of the magic. Rather than making the barrier less effective, it made it more volatile. Much more likely to stop an intruder from another realm but also likely to tear open energies beyond mortal ken or simply burn down the house in the process. It was also effective enough to block any other information coming out of the house. He could neither see nor hear anything in the house.

Quickly, he returned to the fence outside of the alley and looked to Laura. She sat as before, eyes locked and waiting. Faint sounds threaded their way through the chaos in Laura’s bedroom and into the nest. If such a shoddy barrier were constructed near the bindings that constituted the nest, it would be far more than a quake that rippled down the street.

He considered his options carefully but at speed. He could call the house, warn James and Elizabeth of the dangers. He could break the barrier and attempt to intervene in whatever negative effects arose. He could also try to contain the barrier, pushing it in on itself and moving the effect somewhere else. Of course, that required the barrier to be set but not anchored, something that wasn’t obvious form this side and something he couldn’t pivot from once the attempt was made. Lastly, he could move in from the bedroom and hope to stop the amateur spellcaster before they got to the fire escape.

The direct approach carried the fewest risks to the house. Whatever exposure he received moving through the bedroom could be addressed after the fact. His mind set, he passed through the fence and flew up to the nest.

Then he stopped. The faint scent of chocolate in the air caught him. Perhaps it was from a nearby kitchen, perhaps it was merely a though in the wind, but it gave him pause.

Simple. He dropped to the ground on the street side of the alley fence and pulled out a phone.

It rang. A click as the century old landline wires connected inside of the house. Sound then, a shouting between two voices, one Elizabeth’s the other could only be Catherine Johnson, the self-styled Madame Zidania. “Hello, this is James Wilks.”

Olivier moved quickly to the front door. “Mr. Wilks, Oliver Kelley. Whatever you do, keep your sister-in-law away from Laura’s room.”

“Mr. Kelley? They’re arguing on the stairs at this very moment. I think it would be better if I came out and we talked, let them be.”

Olivier was already moving back to the alley. “James. I know confrontation with old money isn’t your thing. But at this moment, more than your daughters well being rests on you keeping that woman away from that room.”

He stowed the phone and bounded to the nest. Laura watched dispassionately as he crossed over her. Her eyes ever fixed but her head unmoving.

More sounds crossed through the chaos. Three raised voices now. Olivier adopted the first signs of his Office and passed into the bedroom. It was like smashing into the ocean from a cliffside dive. He could feel the pressure waves pushing through him, not over. Each step was a strain, his vision swam and reversed, his ears popped and screamed, his mouth filled with acrid flavors and his nose with pungent smells. The disturbance that had coated the room had grown exponentially in just fourteen hours.

Despite the discomfort and disorientation, he could still make out raised voices beyond the door. They were closer, more insistent. The women drowned out the third voice as Olivier stepped within inches of the door. The first tendrils of an inept barrier began to wind their way through the wood.

He had only seconds to push the door open before the barrier took hold and potentially set off a chain reaction that he had no hope to contain. To do so would expose his form to the Wilks and shred any hopes of stopping other forces from converging on the situation.

A flurry of voices and then silence.

Olivier pushed open the door, the threads of the barrier shoved aside, dissipating like a spider’s web in wind. The hallway was empty except for a bag brimming with herbs and philters filled with dubious substances. Olivier shut the door and dropped the trappings of his Office. He pulled the wards out of his satchel and attached them on either side of the door. As expected, his previous wards had all but burned up. The new ones took hold with an invisible flash and a wave of power. He opened the door and stepped in again. The energies within were now contained.

He closed the door again and headed downstairs.

James was in the kitchen assembling a tray for tea. Olivier nodded to him and spoke in an even tone. “You did well, James.”

The weary man nodded. “They are in the parlor. I invoked a family tradition of taking tea whenever it was offered, to never broach decorum no matter the animosity or parties involved.”

Olivier smiled. “As I said, well done.”

James continued piling the tray with saucers and cups, grabbing a fourth for Olivier. “You told me not to fear the old money. It reminded me of the saying about the aristocracies of old, ‘a gold cage is still a cage’.”

Olivier followed James to the parlor. The sisters were seated but still bickering.

Elizabeth was fending off a snipe as they entered. “You don’t get to tell me what to do with my daughter. She’s my child. I am her mother. I will make the decision and you will stay out of it.”

Christine met the request with a scoff. “Your child? It was a miracle child. A child destined for greatness, and you’ve done nothing. Nothing! To protect her. Banning me from this house? That is why she’s possessed!”

James set down the tea tray abruptly. It was only years of being in the presence of these irreproachable aristocratic women that kept him from slamming it down. “I would remind you ladies that we are here to have tea and be civil.” He nodded to Olivier, then gestured to his couch on the left of the room. “Please, be seated.” Then to the women, “We do have a guest, after all.”

James remained standing as he set about preparing the tea service.

Christine, sitting on the central couch Olivier had occupied the day before regarded the stranger with only half as much disdain and venom as she used on her sister. “How did this thing get into the house?”

James was slowly stirring leaves and spices with a sifter. “Through the door, as do all welcome guests.”

Elizabeth also seemed puzzled. “I didn’t hear anyone. I also do not wish to see y0ou, Mr. Kelley, unless you have good news.”

Olivier locked eyes with Christine, nay, the self-styled Madame Zidania. “Unfortunately, I am here to keep the situation from getting worse. I have not yet located the answers I promised.”

Madame Zidania drew arcane symbols in the air and patted at her side to find her bag missing. She stood to fetch it but James blocked her physically and verbally.

“Christine, you agreed to tea. You don’t need your bag for that, and it is rude to leave. I will fetch it for you, once I’m satisfied that you will remain here and remain civil.” There was a quiver in James’ lower legs as he said it, perhaps from the leaning posture he used to fuss over the tea service, but more likely it was where the nerves were going to keep his voice steady and strong.

Christine settled back into the couch but rubbed a crystal tied in her hair with one hand while pointing a well-manicured natural nail at Olivier. “This thing in your house is a great danger to your daughter. You should have him removed at once. I say this as a loving sister and a seer of all evil.” She glared at James then at Elizabeth. “For the child!”

Elizabeth adjusted her posture slightly, not as full upright and staunch, but with a slight tilt of her shoulder and a bow of her head to her husband. She was impressed with how James was handling things and gave him this abeyance. “Thank you, James. What ever would I do without the father of my child and better half?”

Olivier used the moment of Christine’s distraction to put an end to the spell she was trying to construct. The stone was a power focus, a sliver of black diamond from the east coast of South America. Born int eh heat of a supernova and smashed into the planet when it was still cooling, and the continents were as one. A dark moment in the War of the Hosts. An act of evil so depraved that it caused a rift within the Rebels.

The stone bore an intricate power, half-slaved to chaotic forces and yearning to destroy. The other half welcomed the possibility of all life and fostered a beautiful unification. like the Hosts themselves, the stone was divided against itself and that made it versatile to craft and weave any number of magical feats. Those energies were volatile, so it only took so much to tip them another direction.

Olivier sat forward and tapped his foot against the antique rug. As he did so he pushed thoughts of a fleeting past into the room. The what ifs and what could have beens of chances not taken, loves not declared, and battles not fought. “I think you’ve confused yourself, Madame Zidania. Everyone here is deeply vested in the safety and future of Laura. She’s counting on you to help her grow, not force her into a shape before her time.”

Christine rubbed the stone harder, but her nail quivered in its motion, lolling and fidgeting as she wove her figures. There was a crackling sound, not unlike a bug zapper in summer, and she shoved her finger in her mouth. The stone dropped from her hair as the smell of burning flesh swept into the air.

James handed the sisters each a cup. “Your preferences?”

Olivier shook his head. “The same as yourself.”

Christine winced as she pulled her finger from her mouth and pressed it hard into her skirt. She looked to Elizabeth. “Your man of mystery may be an abomination, but he does have good manners.” She sipped her tea and gave James an approving nod. “You husband also knows his way around a service. Fine. I apologize for being so…” the words eluded her or the act of saying them was a monumental feat, “concerned about Laura that I forgot that she was a sensitive, sentient being as deserving of space and freedom as anyone.” She tipped her cup to Olivier. “We all want her to recover and grow.” The words were sincere, but the concession was anything but. Olivier could see in her eyes and the tautness of her mouth that she had every intention of backing down to regroup and resurge, not to let it lie.

Elizabeth, satisfied with the part she had played, invited James to sit beside her. “Please dear, do us the honor of accepting a moment of thanks for helping two caged birds stop their bickering.”

James handed Olivier a cup and then dutifully sat next to his wife. She leaned into his side, and he beamed with pride, if only for a moment.

Between her concession speech and James’ position at his wife’s side, Christine had no avenue to request her bag. She curled her burned finger in her skirt, sipped her tea, and did her best to hide her hatred for everyone in the parlor.

Olivier took the opening to further delay whatever Madame Zidania had planned. “If you would excuse me for a moment, and grant me the honor, I would be happy to fetch Ms. Johnson’s bag.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Such a graceful offer. Of course.” Her words bore the same care and well-mannered decorum as her sisters but the intent beneath them was still clear, Olivier was about out of largesse with her.

He excused himself form the parlor and headed up the stairs. He also took note that the barrier at the front door had vanished after the crystal’s disruption.

He recovered the bag from where he had seen it on the second floor. It was heavier than it looked, loaded with crude instruments of magicka and esoterica. Despite the garish appearance of a carnival fortune teller, Madame Zidania had real materials at her disposal. No natural powers or training, but enough money to secure a treasure trove of oddities. Olivier inhaled deeply, memorizing the traces that permeated the objects. It would serve the Third to know more about the supplier and to put eyes on them. Satisfied he had the impressions he needed, he reached out with power of his authority and the visage of his Office to subtlety fracture, bend, and wilt everything therein. Any power she tried to pull form them would see them crumble but any sense used to detect them would still register that they were active.

He returned to the parlor and gently handed the bag to Christine. “That’s an interesting collection, quite extensive.”

She pulled a tincture out of a side pocket and wrapped her finger. “I take my craft very seriously, Mr. Kelley. If only the other so-called experts my sister had allowed to tromp through her home had been equally dedicated. Some were simply misguided; others were quite obviously frauds. More the latter, I think.”

This last part was clearly a slight at Olivier.

Olivier placed his half-filled cup on the tray and stood at the threshold. “I must take my leave. I’ll return as soon as I get any new information, Mrs. Wilks. Mr. Wilks.”

Elizabeth stared through him with bitter, desperate eyes. “We shall finish our tea, my dear sister will go home and we will all take a quiet day to collect ourselves and pray for Laura.” This last part both an accusation and a plea at her sister.

Catherine nodded. “I am desperately tired. I t would be best if I did some studying and prepared a few things. I’ll be back tomorrow. With your permission, of course.” This threat carried with it the weight of their social obligations. Without a clear reason to bar her, Elizabeth could not simply refuse.

“Of course, Catherine. But not before dinner. We’ll prepare something adequate and host you properly.” A time delaying tactic and one that told Olivier just how much time he had before the situation again spiraled out of control.

He departed through the front door, shutting it behind him.

Olivier understood that his timeline was anything but stable. The risk in leaving a problem unsolved should have been that Laura could suffer further damage or become unrecoverable. Sadly, the real dangers kept being the human elements that refused to leave it well enough alone. He smiled to himself as he headed across the street to the park. If humans were more complacent, less willing to push into spaces they didn’t belong, they would not be the focus of Creation. It was these impish, imprudent, outright frustrating entities that were the reason he and everyone he served with had been formed. He might have changed his Office but he stayed steadfast in that duty.

He stepped back to the sacristy. O’Hugh had locked himself in, the tables, clean only a few hours ago, were laden t with tomes opened and marked. O’Hugh was at the desk arranging something over the phone as Olivier arrived. “It matters not what permits. The church has recourse to hold a vigil at any time given the permission of a parishioner. We can gather at the Wilks’ home as soon as I reach James.” He stifled a gasp as the agnel appeared. “See that it gets done. Twenty of our most faithful, we need strength of spirit, not numbers.” He hung up the phone and came around the desk. “I’ve been working hard here. The identity of the Guardian has to be connected to the area or the Wilks’ line. Or perhaps the Johnson’s, if it has followed Elizabeth. I dare not delve into the Sephirot and commune with the mysticism of the Jewish faith. It is too far beyond my purview.”

Oliver shook his head. “It’s fine, Reverend Father, I will send along a person well-versed in all things pertaining to the tribes of Israel soon. It is best he remains here with you and work on this aspect of the problem. But until I can get him, I have some information that will assist the process.” Olivier scanned a few pages of a book open nearby, it was a detailed history of the Wilks’ family line from their time in southwest England in the years 1240-1600.

O’Hugh came to his side and pointed at the book. “After 1600 the family scatters. Some end up in Virginia, some in Germany. Others remain. The known house angels of the family get split up and more get added as the traditions of each area override.” A note of disgust leaked into this final statement. He shifted the shoulders of his robe uncomfortably and crossed himself. “Forgive me, Father. It is a trial sometimes.” Then to Olivier, “Nothing against the Anglicans, so much, but they did make records of this sort… difficult to parse.” He crossed himself again, “To say nothing of the Calvinists.”

Olivier dismissed the intrareligious issues and cut to the point, “I have additional information on the identity. This Guardian would have been working with a select group in the earliest of days. Do you have anything pertaining to the Pillars of Eternity or scriptural translations that substitute the name Sandalphon for the Metatron?” There was no point in bringing up the bindings, if they were barely considered elements of the Enochian archives, it would not have crossed human holy pages. “If you find something there, trace back to any scribes of those translations, any monasteries they came from, and determine their patrons and house angels. That will give us the shortest list.”

O’Hugh jotted down a note and started looking at the shelves as he continued the conversation. “I am sure we will find something. Something significant, but how long will it take? How long do we have?”

Olivier considered his answer carefully. He didn’t have time to wait for Israfel to decipher the message on the page. “We might have a day, two if your prayer circle distracts certain concerned parties.” He pushed the book aside to the one beneath it. A treatise on the anatomy of the Nephilim by a heretical sage named Ströd. “I give it at most, twenty more hours. By dawn tomorrow we’ll be facing heat from sources that will not be rebuffed. You have that long to track down the shortlist of Guardians and get a name. Otherwise, I will be forced need to take a risk and enter the turmoil of Laura’s psyche.”

O’Hugh slammed a recently collected tome onto the table. “You would violate the girl’s soul in such a way?”

“I suggest it only as a final resort. And it is not so simple. I risk more than her essence in doing so, I could easily get swept up and trapped. Human souls are not meant to be tampered with and to do so requires a powerful intent.”

O’Hugh smirked and crossed himself. “He has such wisdom and foresight to protect His children in such a way.”

Olivier conceded the point. “Layers upon layers of protection. But nothing is infallible. I will make preparations for the task; I hope that I will not have to use them.”

“I will hold you to that, Olivier. Not a single avenue must be left to you or I will stand ready to see you banished.”

Chapter 5 (second half)

It troubled Olivier that the clues to the Guardian’s identity were so sparse but the difficulty drove him to question further. The lack of evidence was a clue of sorts. Either something was attempting to cover up the evidence or the Guardian was trying to hide its identity. Two different problems with completely different modus operandi, but, perhaps, overlapping motives. 

The more time passed, the worse the outcome for Laura. But hasty actions lead to false paths. Finding Israfel was still an option but the trail of possibles was vanishingly quickly.

Olivier returned to Paris, not directly to Leliel’s abode, but to the Patisserie and Chocolatier in Calais. 

“I’m here to pick up whatever you’ve not sold that contain or are covered in chocolate.”
Joanna greeted him warmly, “So busy monsieur but so concerned with my wares.”

Olivier smiled. “I have a friend with a sweet tooth and a penchant for speaking in riddles. She put me on your doorway, so I assume she wanted both outcomes.”

She placed a coffee and hot water in front of Olivier. “For you. I’ve run out of milk, so you will have to deal with the acid in your own way.” She set about boxing up a few ‘insert dessert’. 

While she worked, Olivier poured the water and coffee together. It felt less troubling to maintain his affectation, with her than when he did similar in the presence of other members of the Third. Perhaps it was the newness of their acquaintance or perhaps it was more that she was playing into the mannerisms earnestly whereas the other angels simply didn’t invest in it.

She passed by and dropped a half-full carafe before him. “The last of the day, and I should not finish it myself, no?” She swept past and then returned with a black box neatly tied with red string. “Two more, maybe three. Is this too much?”

Olivier shook his head. “No, I’m sure it will get used.”

She smiled, tilting her head. “Are you taking these to…” she reddened in embarrassment. “Others of your kind?”

Olivier nodded over his steaming cup. “Yes. Two or three will share in these. Though they serve no nutritious purpose, trust me that they are savored and enjoyed as much, probably more, than any person over the age of twelve.”

She laughed. “You have perhaps not seen the old ones that come here. Couples in their twilight years enjoy the patisseries and chocolates more than any child, more than any good Christian person should.” This last part was spoken with a toss of her honeysuckle hair., a joke that cut at her customers and at Olivier but one that also carried a certain longing within.

Olivier placed his coffee down and patted the box she had put down. “In my years I have worked with many creatures. Angels of the Host and of the Hells and of the Third. But also beings from other worlds and places outside of your conception. But the work with humans is always the most rewarding. This is…” he considered the way to phrase it, “essentially about you. It is only fitting that you be the most robust part.”

Joanna finished gathering the remaining macarons from the display nearest the door and boxed them swiftly, but gently, into a lush purple crepe paper. “Does this work with humans matter, in the scheme of time you must have lived?”

The sadness was more profound this time, palpable. Olivier refilled his coffee as before: coffee to water to stir in precise portions and motions. “It is a struggle, a long struggle that has gone on longer than you might think and will probably continue beyond the dust of your greatest descendants’ bones. But that does not make today any less important. In the time before, when it was all being put in motion, there were talks among the unified Host about the purpose, the joy of each element of Creation and the response that it would someday receive.” Olivier leaned back and paused.

Joanna placed the newly wrapped box beside the first. “You are conflicted? By what?”

Olivier considered the two boxes already waiting. “Consider the joy you’ve put into making these and consider the joy you’ve put into every treat you’ve ever made. Multiply that by all of your ancestors who have ever made a treat. That is the feeling of even one of His angels in considering their Office and the duty to Creation that was the reason for their existence.” He paused again. “I have the ability to make you feel that, or at least a facsimile, to manipulate your emotions with sensations and nudges, but to show you even a fraction of the feeling of Heaven in the time before the Earth? If the feeling didn’t overwhelm you, or cripple you, it would attract less savory beings to your doorstep. My presence here may have already started a reaction of this sort.”

Joanna scooped finely detailed chocolate biscuits into a pair of bags and tied them with lavender string. “I do not fear the dangers of the hidden world.”

Olivier regarded the slight tremble in her hands as she said it, the shift in her illustrious cupid’s bow. “Don’t worry.” He pulled a parchment from his satchel, placed on it a flurry of well-practiced strokes and put it inside the display by the door. He pulled out a smaller, delicate filament and tied it to her wrist. “If you come to harm, this will summon me.” He pointed to the door. “That will mask your presence, as well as the residual energies I’ve left here.”

She placed the bags of cookies next to the boxes. “I thank you, monsieur. I see that the young woman in the rain gear is always nearby, also watching. But I think you do not know how safe I already am.”

Olivier sniffed the air and noticed, for the first time, the symbol on the box of pastries. “You supply treats to Isaac’s café?”

She smiled, blushing. “I do. He told me it was customary for my family. I had seen him many times in my youngest days, even before grandfather began to teach me. A wise man of silver hair and keen eyes.”

Olivier picked up the boxes and bags, cradling them in one arm. “Charge Isaac’s account then. And tell him Leliel sends her regards. I think it will delight the old man.”

Joanna gave a curt nod. “Until I see you again, then.”

Oliver stepped out the door and into Leliel’s abode as the last vestiges of light swept low and long across the city. Leliel floated as it had in the dawn, by the large, curved window at the north of the room. It faced west this time and titled its head, straining to hear a sound that was not a sound. As the darkness crossed over it, bathing it, for a moment in twilight, a note floated down, ivory on gold, glowing with a light that burned with the cold heat of frostbite. “Enjoy. Embrace.”

Leliel floated to a short white table situated on a soft black rug. It looked to Olivier with expectant eyes.

Harahel stepped into the room, arriving at the silhouette canvas opposite the window. Not so tall but not so short, wearing a long black coat over a black sweater and white slacks, she had a leisurely heir to the ay she slouched when not moving but she marched forward with a purpose that seemed harried, as if she was rushing to catch a train but knew it was already too late. “Best to get the treats on the table before it becomes irate.” Harahel fixed Leliel with a cold smile.

Leliel floated into place cross-legged under the table. It clapped its hands and beamed even as its sorrowful eyes bore into Olivier with anger. Olivier sat on a couch across from Leliel. Harahel sat on the couch next to Leliel.

He placed the boxes and bags on the table. “I see your point.” Then, to Leliel, “Appreciate the ritual.” He held each package in front of it.

Leliel pulled each ribbon with a silent gasp and giggled as the boxes and bags opened up, their subtle, sugary scents permeating the dark spaces and harsh lights of the room.

While Leliel tried one of each thing, clapping and smiling its contentment with each, Olivier turned his attention Harahel. “You saw the latest piece?”

Harahel took a biscuit form a bag and slapped at Leliel’s hand when it protested. “No. There are plenty and I want this one.” Then, to Olivier, “It seems you’ve been indulging more than usual, and walking in dangerous territory.”

He grimaced. “I’ve dealt with the issues of my own insecurity. I would prefer we focus on the danger.” He opened his satchel and produced parchment, gold wire, and a silver pen. “The room I passed through today was uncomfortable, aggressive. It is leaking out and I need it contained before it becomes a beacon we can’t keep off the radar.”

Harahel munched on a biscuit and continued to ward off the grasping hands of Leliel. “No, shoo, shoo! Eat your macarons.” She stroked Leliel’s bald pate and held its form close. “How is the girl not already spilling out of control? Ireul passed along information about the quake.”

“She was outside the room, on the fires escape. She made a basket of cloth out there.”

Harahel nodded, stroking Leliel’s head and considering. “Show me.”

Olivier leaned back and spoke a phrase, a string of blackened notes on a golden staff that wound inside and back out again as it closed the short distance to Harahel.

She let go of Leliel and rose up, propelled by the words. Her four black wings fluttered and furled. A laurel crown formed across her brow and scroll appeared before her. She hovered for a few more moments before slowly settling back to the sofa by the table. “Such a ward. No wonder she was not seen. She has recreated a link of Sandalphon’s binding.”

It was a name and an office that gave the assembled angels pause. Leliel stopped munching on her assorted sweets, crumbs falling from its chin. Harahel waited to explain more, and Olivier paced behind the sofa he had been sitting on. “You’ll have to fill me in on the implications. I get the what, but not the why.”

Harahel’s scroll appeared again as she strained to find more information in the depths of her knowledge. “In the first days of Creation, there were holes and tears, the results of growing pains, or perhaps birthing pains. Thes eholes spewed untold horrors into the cosmos. To stem the tide, Sandalphon, the pillar, created bonds of its own being and spackled the inside of the cosmos shut. Eventually the wounds healed, the bindings faded, and the knowledge of them all but disappeared.”

Olivier leaned forward, placing his elbows on the sofa for leverage. “I’m assuming this binding only resembles Sandalphon’s? It isn’t an actual binding?”

Harahel shook her head as her scroll faded away. “No. From what you’ve shared it is an actual binding.”

Olivier resumed his pacing. “That leaves us with three possibilities. One, this is a binding supplied by Sandalphon who knows of the girl and her Guardian. Two, the Guardian is one of the few around at the time of the first days who knew how to deploy a binding. Three, the bindings did not fade away, they simply pushed to the other side of the tears and are appearing again as the wounds reopen.”

Harahel took the box of macarons and started dusting the crumbs off the otherwise beautifully arranged box. “I think it is a combination of the last two. While it is possible Sandalphon is directly involved, it operates by different rules, the materials of the binding are physical representations of an energy and that energy had to come from Sandalphon. If this is a tear, then the material moved to that location from the quasi-space outside of the cosmos and was knit with a knowledge that had to have come from those that helped apply the original bindings.”

Olivier nodded. “I follow. That narrows down my list of Guardians, but it also leads me to believe this situation is more volatile and time sensitive than I already feared.”

Leliel floated in front of him, its hands held together in front of its chest. Olivier stopped, waiting for the impish angel to make her point. It thrust its hands forward and opened them slowly to reveal a layered chocolate, essentially a miniature cake confectionery.

Olivier dutifully took the offered chocolate. Despite its excellent presentation and many fine layers, it tasted only of chocolate. No aftertaste or sudden undercurrents. He considered the wisdom of the gesture and the chocolate itself. “Just because something is multifaceted doesn’t make it complicated. Sometimes all those intricate bits count for nothing.” He sighed. “I shouldn’t have to spell that out to myself but its so easy to overthink things. There’s so much at stake.”

Harahel laughed, a gently, papery wisp of a laugh. It was almost more a polite cough but good natured enough.

While they were commiserating over the simplicity of blunt wisdom, Leliel set about marking and carving on the parchments Olivier had laid out before. It did not use the pen, rather tracing its fingers over the page and letting touches of its Office permeate the sanctified paper. The gold wire was melted at a touch, embossing the pages, and bringing a symphony of powers into perfect concert.

Olivier chewed his chocolate slowly, admiring the work as it happened and feeling, for a moment, a lightness, the weight of leadership and the oppression of dread he bore dissipated. He bowed slightly to the peculiar, bald angel and then turned his attention to Harahel. “Before I get too lost, what did you see in the silhouette from this morning?”

Harahel gathered herself, shaking away the beatific smile and lazy, glacial eyes she adopted while watching Leliel play. “The image from earlier showed a discordance. You were right to suspect that the parties involved were not typical. Besides your own fragments, there were those of the Guardian, smeared and indecipherable but obvious in their own way.” She summoned her scroll again. “Beyond that, there was a third party. A solemn calm. Someone with a duty that somehow encompassed the task.”

Olivier gathered the wards Leliel had prepared and tucked them away. “So, it was a member of the Host. Someone misguided or someone on a mission. One of our parties must be rogue, or the deed would simply have been completed.”

Harahel pressed into the sofa. “No sulfur to speak of. Nothing that can’t be connected to you. Whatever the dispute, this is a one-sided affair.”

Olivier moved to the window and looked out into the Parisian skyline. “I’m down to three leads. Israfel, the binding, and a list of Guardians short but still in the thousands. I’ll return to the Wilks’ home and place the wards and pursue what I can on the bindings until Israfel surfaces.” He turned to the room. “If I need to come back, am I going to be able to?”

Leliel fumed, shaking its fists and frowning. “Bring chocolate.” Its anger faded around a mischievous smile.

Chapter 5 (incomplete)

From the beach of Calais to the warehouse in Seattle in an instant, the sand left behind along with any wetness. Ireul was up and about this time, drifting through the aisles of monitors checking on scrolling text and columns of numerical data. “What have you learned about our list of names?”

Ireul didn’t bother to interrupt her routine but projected her voice through a system near him. “You going to accept the answers I give or am I going to need to revert to a backup by the time you’re done?”

Olivier folded his arms. “I’ll give you that one. I’m fine. Or, at least I’m working on it.”

Ireul jotted and dotted some numbers into the air as she read them off a screen. “Figure out what was going or simply learning to let it go?”

He shook his head. “Maybe a bit of both. But it is a good question. I was thinking about it, why I felt so insecure suddenly. Every new case comes with ne w problems. I may be ancient and powerful but that isn’t to say I am all powerful. I’m not in to making that mistake.”

Ireul laughed. “Not like some people we could name.”

“Right. Them.” He paced in a small circle. “Every time I take on a new challenge I ask myself questions about if I’m the one for the job, if it wouldn’t be faster and better to delegate it to someone with the right skills.” He picked up bundle of wires from a shelf. “Do you need this for anything?”

Ireul swept past on the way to her next data station. “Nothing I am doing today, if you need it.”

He put the bundle of gold wire into his satchel. “Ideally, my intent in taking point is to determine who would be good for any given job.”

Ireul sped past again. “I get it. You are the great leader and its all very important.”

He smirked. “I’ll get to it. Every time I question my identity, I also question my purpose. We are our duty, our Office. I lose control of my self when I rethink the label. A side effect of choosing a purpose, adopting that shard of Creation.”

It was the dead of night in Seattle and the night sounds had ceased, leaving only the heavy thrum of the generators to fill any dead air his pauses left. “The difference here is how quickly it came on and the extent. Either I’m losing control because my chosen Office is something I’ve lost all faith in, or something else was affecting me.”

Ireul zoomed by again. “Hold for restart. Maybe take the moment to get to the point?” As she said it the power faded and the room became a pitch-black backdrop of warm air and fans spinning down. The generators idled and then everything sped up again as thousands of machines snapped back on.

“I wasn’t being insecure this time. Well, not at first. It was the Guardian. The message on the page was as much a cry for help as it was a plea for clarity. Whoever the Guardian is, their losing their sense of duty and self.”

Ireul floated in nearby, her face a skull of blue underlighting and harrowed eyes. “That sounds beyond switching teams or passing on the badge. That sounds like annihilation precursors.”

Olivier nodded again and reached into his bag. “Initially, I was worried about keeping this quiet while we find a resolution and save the girl. Now, I think we are going to need to rescue the Guardian before he takes her with. Finding their name has become priority two.”

“And priority one?”

“I doubt the wards I put up will hold that chaos in for long. I need to get back there with something more permanent before we have to get the Heavens involved to repair it.”

“Gah. I don’t like dealing with the Heavens and the agents it deigns to send to deal with us.” She snapped her fingers and a chair slid from a desk and settled beneath her. She floated cross-legged into the seat. “Let’s talk list.”

Olivier sat back into he chair that arrived to catch him. “I’ve got to meet with Leliel and Harahel later, too get more help on the wards. I suspect I’ll need more than gold filament, but it should at least save me some time.”

“It also helps that I’ve had it for years and its been soaking up residual power. I get you.” She leaned her neck to the left and then rolled it to the right in a slow stretch. “Now, about your list. A lot of names of first responders. Nothing flagged on any of them. Just people doing people things. The psychologists were tainted, but only the little bit that they all seem to be.”

Olivier nodded. “Jung did a number on the mental health profession by including the mysticism that invites powers and such. Still, better than the discipline sticking with Freud.”

They laughed together and then shuddered.

She continued, “The people to be wary of are the medium and the priest.”

Olivier waved his hand, throwing the sensation of sage and chipped paint into the air. “All her efforts did was to scratch the energy, riling up anything that might come through. More of a beacon than a ward and I’m not certain that is even the issue.”

Ireul exhaled, blowing the sensation to oblivion. “I get it. Angel of Knowledge here, you don’t need to walk me through it with visual aids.”

Olivier maintained an even, serious gaze. “Experience matters in a way that knowledge doesn’t always cover. As long as Christine Johnson stays out of the picture, the situation won’t degrade before I can get it stabilized.”

Ireul frowned. “If only she stuck with her birth name. Madame Zidania, as she now advertises herself, is likely to give us trouble.”

Olivier dismissed the notion with no further reaction. “And the priest?”

“Father Eoghan O’ Hugh is the real deal. First generation Irish. Born of the brother of a priest and entered into the seminary directly after confirmation. Spent his entire life in private schools and working his way up the internals of the Church. Moved to Georgetown in the early 70s, where he ran across your Mr. Wilks and he’s continued to grow the faith since.”

Olivier listened to the report with the same unwavering, rapt attention. “Yet another person I can’t exactly walk up to in the house if I’m going to keep any cover.”

Ireul leaned back in another languid stretch. “Worse. If you want to talk to him, and you do. You have to go do an Announce in the parish. True believers still operate by the old ways.”

Olivier stood up and the chair beneath him slid back to its position. I might strike that iron while I’ve still got a bit of advantage.”

“You taking anyone with you? I can get Ramiel to back you up. Or Raguel?”

Olivier paced past her. “I’ll stick solo for now. Lower profile. If I get Raguel involved, this whole situation gets dangerous fast. No. I’ll make a quick stop in the parish before dawn. Visions are always easier to swallow when partially awake.”

“Fine. Anything else I should be doing here?”

Olivier allowed his clothes to fall to the floor as he adopted a flowing white robe. “Keep my satchel on the hook and get me any extra information you can dig up on Joanna Milleaux-Pages, the Bearer of the Eye and the Constabulary of the Silver Known. And her grandfather one Gregor Milleaux.”

He didn’t wait for Ireul to respond as he stepped into the small bedchamber of Father O’Hugh. It was a proper cloister size and décor, though rebuilt in the middle of a city parish. Some of the authentic elements were from Europe and obviously painstakingly imported and retrofitted for the space. This aberration of wealth did not undercut the piety that permeated the walls.

The room was sparsely furnished. On the left of the room: a bed. On the right: a wardrobe. The simple bed was adorned with a straw mattress and a short wool blanket. The wall held a single brass crucifix. The wardrobe contained two robes, one for high mass and one for every day wear. A small end table, also imported from eastern Europe held an open Bible and a set of sandalwood rosary beads.

In the middle of the room knelt Father Eoghan O’Hugh reading his scriptures and praying before dawn like a good friar should. The Bible was open to Galatians, one Paul’s many epistles. Though he prayed silently, as all good men of the cloth and all believer should, the words rang out loudly to Olivier.

“Give me wisdom to understand. Give me the voice to be heard. Give me insight and succor through the day. I will dwell on this, and only this, all the week. For it is said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

He repeated the refrain then. And again. His demeanor remained still and pious but his tone, his want, grew stronger with each repetition.

Olivier stopped observing and let his adopted office flow over him. A crown of golden lights shown brighter and high. A deep pool of shadow and flames swelled the floor. He rose up a foot into the air and unfurled his six majestic wings. The wispy shadow of a sword resided at his hip but did not form. He held no weapon within his hands, but a fire raged above and below, his eyes shown with a dark light ringed with gold. He spoke.

“Father Eoghan Declan O’Hugh. I bring you not tidings, nor joy. I bring you a request only.”

The priest did not so much startle as cavort. The sense of joy that came from him bashed the trickles of fear well to the side. Still on his knees, he turned to face Olivier. He did not look up but also did not bow. He held a steady gaze at ankle level. He sniffed twice, holding his face taught as the burning musk of wormwood and juniper rose to meet him. The second sniff brought a twinge of a smile to the stalwart man’s lips. This was the scent of home, the moss and rain of a Cork morning with just a hint of wheat in the field.

He replied slowly, picking his words carefully despite a surging glee. “You are not of the Host, nor are you foul, or not totally foul. What name did Our God give to thee, messenger?”

Despite himself, Olivier felt a kinship with the priest. He accepted what was before him, even though he also adhered to strict traditions. He was wary, ready to act, but not willing to act before it was time. That he allowed the baptismal of a lax member was not an aberration or a refusal of his duty, it was a confirmation of the deeper calling he felt. Olivier intensified his appearance, slipping further into the Office. “I am the angel Olivier. Once Prince of Hell and vassal to the Morningstar. I now command the Third Host, those who follow their duty but stand for Creation, not for Heaven nor for Hell.”

Father O’Hugh placed his feet beneath him and looked into Olivier’s shining face. “I do not supplicate myself before a thing that does not serve the Father. But I will not turn you away. Like all lost souls, you may find peace within these walls.”

Proper man of God or not, Olivier had things to do, and the pomp was sometimes a poor way to convey urgency or intent. “I need not your shelter or your peace. I come with a request, will you hear me out?”

Father O’Hugh stripped out of his ed clothes and donned his plain robe. “I must tend to the duties of the parish. You have announced yourself and made your intent known. I ask now that you disguise yourself as the messengers to Sodom once did.”

Olivier cast aside his Office and settled to the ground. His robe, though still a brilliant white, did not scintillate or carry its own light source. “With your permission, I will change my appearance.”

O’Hugh nodded. “By the Name of the Son, I do grant you free reign in this House of the Lord. Take heed that you give me no cause to rebuke thee.”

No sooner were the words spoken then Olivier had already left and returned with his clothing and satchel. “Thank you, father. Now, about the reason for my visit.”

O’Hugh pushed his chamber door open and stalked into the outer hall. A dozen doors line the hallway, each containing a room of the same layout, though likely not the same imported furniture and materials, as O’Hughs. He began striking a cymbal on a hook on the wall. The doors opened almost in unison and the other priests of the parish came out. Despite the number of doors, only three other priests resided inside.

They lined up in front of the older man and Olivier.

O’Hugh regarded them with a hawk’s eye and a flinty jaw. “Eckles, your cassock is less than clean.”

The young man with square glasses and a cherry stain on his robe nodded. “I’m sorry, father. It will be cleaned at once.” He went back into his room and came out a moment later in a different cassock holding the other folded across his arm. “I will be cleaning, doe anyone else require their robes attended?”

O’Hugh nodded. “Consider them all soiled.”

Eckles looked about to complain but closed his mouth. “I will bear this penance in charity and light. Thank you, father.” He returned to his chamber and came out with several more robes and vestments. He hauled the mound of cloth to the end of the hallway and returned, going into each other chamber, save O’Hugh’s, one by one.

The other two priests stood at attention, apprehensive of what fate would befall them before morning rounds had even begun.

O’Hugh pointed to the taller one on the left. “Barton, you will take the confessional until midday.” Then to the ochre-colored priest on the right, “Lounés, prepare the morning meal for our less fortunate brethren. We are expecting at least forty.”

The man bowed and set off to the end of the hall where Eckles had just finished had just gone on his third trip.

The chores sorted, O’Hugh waved Olivier to follow. They talked as they headed through the living chambers and into the nave. “A poor showing for a guest, they lack discipline.”

Olivier commiserated, “They also saw nothing unusual. But don’t take it to heart. Those with the faith to see are few and spaced far.”

O’Hugh balked at the ease Olivier made the report. “If they had discipline, the world would be filled with fit priests ready to carry the Word as they did in the days before.”

Olivier shook his head. “It was never meant to be an army, only the few. You were blessed by birth, not so much by work. It is one of His ways.”

O’Hugh crossed himself. “I fear that you are here to do more harm than good.”

Olivier shook his head again. “I’m here to talk about Larua Wilks.”

O’Hugh crossed himself again as he passed the middle aisle on his way to the sacristy. “That poor child. I knew she was special when she was born. A child born to a woman in her sixties? This is the work of the Father. To see her in such a state, truly the Enemy also sees the good she will bring.”

They passed through a pair of curtains and then a door to enter into the sacristy. The room was expansive, taking up almost a third of the building and three stories tall. Several long tables lined with chairs took up the middle of the room. A desk and curio case on the north wall. The rest of the walls were covered in a bountiful library of old books.

Olivier didn’t try to hide how impressed he was. “It is rare to see so many texts in a house devoted so strongly to the seventy-three in one.”

O’Hugh allowed his own pride to show through. “Three is much old money in this town. I make certain that most benefits the community, but some I put to use here, where it will benefit the souls of those who seek.”

Olivier walked along the shelves noting the titles and editions. “Did you know that Laura was in danger, specifically, or ritually?”

O’Hugh fetched two books from the desk on the north wall and spread them out on a table. “No child should go so long beyond the Age of Reason without a baptism. It brings only evil and poison into a life.”

Olivier regarded the priest’s tone. For the first time since he had appeared, he felt a disconnect with the man. “It is not yours to judge. But your guilt is also misplaced, Reverend Father. You did what you could. If she was a target, there is nothing you could do to head off those plans. Know this, she had a Guardian, even so many weeks on.”

O’Hugh cried out, “Praise God! Praise Him and His mercy! I told them it was important that the protections of youth do not last. Oh, the joy I have to know she was not without aid.”

Olivier let the priest work off his ecclesiastical energy for a few more moments before interrupting. “What traditions did you teach the young girl, or her father from back in the day?”

The priest turned cold and silent. He crossed himself and pointed to the book on the left. “James refused to carry on his faith. He observed no saints or angels. His wife…” he trailed off. “She is not likely to have carried any traditions either, would that she had practiced Kabbalah or addressed her own faith.” Olivier was impressed again, despite the slip, the priest saw the value of belief, even when it fell outside the domain of his doors.

Chapter 4 (rough)

Though dawn hadn’t yet broken, the sky had begun to glow with the pre-light of the coming dawn. Warm pinks and reds had not yet appeared leaving the horizon a hue of cold, flat white.

It came as no surprise to Olivier, then, that Leliel was absorbed with the view out the window of her penthouse dwelling when he appeared. He removed his shoes as he arrived, willing them into non-existence to respect the sensibilities of the Angel of Night and Shadow.

He saw it as it preferred to be seen, in silhouette. Its bald head shining with the fading moonlight and its black silk pajamas scintillating with the colorless rays of the pre-dawn.

Though he would have preferred to move quickly, experience and long years had shown him that taking a moment to simply be in the presence of the waif of dichotomies was valuable.

He moved silently across the checkered tile floor of the apartment to the window and stood next to it. It tilted its head, touching it to his shoulder. The delicate bone structure of its face bordered on gaunt. No matter how the light moved, there was always some facet of its face left unseen. Together they stood in silence as the day brightened and the shadows stretched thinner and thinner until they melted under the piercing blue sky.

“I surrender,” it said quietly. The shape of the words the scent of dusk against the background of midnight. They rose from its lips, out the window, and into the sky. If you had eyes to see, you would notice that in the clouds that now stretched above Paris an ethereal figure in flowing white received the message. It gave the faintest of smiles as it pulled the edge of the heliosphere westward across the world.

Great, broad blinds slid across the window leaving the room striped with light and shadow. Leliel floated to a canvas across from the window and waited.

Olivier made his way dutifully to a point just under six feet from the canvas. With the angle of the sun, this cast a shadow exactly his height and dimensions onto the wall.

Leliel willed a pot of ink and a brush into its hands and began to trace across the canvas. “Speak,” it whispered in its usual manner. Its voice carried but never came across as loud. One always strained just enough to hear the sound that they were always listening, never hearing.

Olivier remained motionless as he spoke. “I’m on a case. Too much nuance and not enough players. For an event that clearly involved two parties, I can’t find evidence of the second.”

It continued to apply ink to the canvas, tilting its head less to pretense at listening as to see the way the light changed from moment to moment. “You don’t need two colors to create contrast. Shades of one can do all the work, if one is attuned.” It flourished the point with a spray of black across the top of painting. The soot-black ink coated the slight luster of the cobalt black used before.

Olivier considered the image spreading out before him. Leliel’s work, like its words, took consideration. The distinction between subtle and outright vague sometimes came down to an act of charity. It didn’t believe in grey. To Leliel every shade of black was black and every shade of white was white. This didn’t give it a one-track mind or staid outlook. If anything, no entity was more concerned with exactly how black a black was.

It moved the canvas from the wall and the two found themselves in a gallery/warehouse in the Netherlands. Rows and rows of similar works lined the walls and partitions throughout. At first glance, they could be mistaken as daguerreotypes or copies of the same single work. The longer one looked the more colors emerged from the canvas. Highlights, lowlights, depth, and tone all shone through.

Leliel hung the newest silhouette and regarded it noncommittally. “You are sad,” it said at length. “The contours of your soul here,” she pointed to a pitch-black spot along the image of his arm, “and here,” indicating his torso, “bear the weight.”

Olivier started into the depths of the image and cleared his mind as best as he could. His finger itched. He adjusted the silver band on his left middle finger and scowled. Now was not the time. “Excuse me, Leliel. Are you expecting Harahel to come through today?”

It nodded as it stared at another image in the line of Olivier’s silhouettes. “She will be along in the evening. The moment after the night reaches to the sun. We have an issue to complete.”

They were back in the apartment then, the canvases on the wall covered in roughly penciled comic panels. “We have work. You have work. Return, then. Bring chocolates.”

Olivier found himself on the street next to a bakery. The sign read ‘French bakery and chocolatier’. He knew better than to try and return to Leliel’s penthouse, it had removed him from its white list.

With no further leads he sat at a table outside the bakery. A young woman came out of t a side door and approached him. Your order, monsieur?” Her accent was Norman with a clear history of Basque trailing in the distance. Olivier acknowledge her as he spread his journal and a few pens out on the table. It was best to give the appearance that he was doing something other than staring into nothing as he though. The affectations, mocked by some of his brethren in the Host kept him grounded, or at least he tried to remember that was the point. He shook his head, less an affectation than a genuine push to feel something other than dread.

He acknowledge the young woman at length. “A café, hot water at the side, and a pain chocolat,” he said in southern French accent, a hint of older Latin to imply his age and breeding.

The young woman blinked in surprise. “For a countryman to order such an American-ized café. So peculiar.”

Olivier gave her a gentle smile, pushing the image of summer rains and long strolls through a valley. “I have spent some years abroad. It is a taste, acquitted. Perhaps an affectation to blend in with my American friends so long that I no longer pretend I don’t prefer it.”

She giggled, nodding. She headed through the front doors to fetch his order but he stopped her.

“Oh, a touch of cream, for the acid.”

She came back to the table and placed a hand against his forehead. “Such a thing for someone so young, has your time abroad stripped you of your health?”

Olivier opened his moleskin and flipped through a few pages idly, letting her see the deftness of his penmanship and the small drawings he made across a few pages. “my health is of little concern.”

She smiled again, “to be so old when you are so young. We are so cursed to live the lives of our parents and our own together.”

He nodded, conceding the folk wisdom. “To live as a youth these many years, to feel and breathe as I once did as a boy.”

“You must speak more Proust to me when I return or are you to be left alone.?”

Olivier considered the position. A person to speak to was always an interesting peak into the point of it all, but the issues of Laura weighed heavy. “Please do, I feel it best to share my concerns.”

She smiled, easily this time. Her delicate cupids’ bow releasing her concern like a shot from the blue. “Oui, Monsieur. I shall return.”

She returned to the bakery and Olivier picked up the implements he had been spreading around and tucked them away, save for the journal. He would allow her to poke at it, if needed. The notes themselves were never of any consequence, observation of rooms and faces, never details for he had no need to remember. H couldn’t not remember.

It was still dawn here, Calais, the seaside village that Leliel had set him on was at best an hour west of Paris and very much enjoying the warmth that came with being in such a proximity to the ocean, if only for a few hours before the cold mists permeated the land. It was quiet, more gray than blue in the sky, expressing a coming rainstorm. Cows could be heard in the distance. Apple orchards lent a floor to the scent profile, undercutting everything else. This was brandy country.

It was no surprise to him when the young woman returned, her blonde braid now loosened and swept back under a neatly tied cloth. She came bearing apple tarts, a warm mug of what could only be a cellar borne brandy, and his coffee and chocolate drizzled bread.

She poured his coffee from a silver carafe and then mixed in the water, stirring gently up and through to infuse the water and the espresso together gently. The milk was then swirled in, a practiced stream that spiraled and warmed before turning the rich dark beverage an even, crisp brown.

She poured herself a straight espresso and inhaled the rising steam. Olivier noted her hands, much more worn and scalded than her years would suggest. This was not, as he first considered, the shop of her family that she worked at as a dutiful daughter would, but the place she tended after a passing, a duty she would hold to for her life. Her hands had worked dough that was too tough, her fingers kissed by the steam and boiler of the espresso machine too often.

She watched the boats sailing into the pier and the ones leaving. Those that came in bore the smells of fresh fish and depleted coffee, the day’s work nearly done for fishermen who had been on the waters for hours. These going out were swarmed by tourists looking to spend a day at an exclusive beach or simply drop anchor in the outer bay and take in the clean air and warming sun.

Olivier sipped his coffee and enjoyed the notes. It was sufficient and clean, nothing exotic, only the work of locals preserving traditions and making products as they had for centuries.

He addressed the young French maiden, leaving no room in his voice for mistakes or misunderstandings. “You need not fear me, child.” He grabbed the brandy mug and drank deeply.

She turned to him, her smile shaken but not broken. “How?”

Olivier finished off the mug and returned to his coffee. “Nothing against the monastic order that trained your grandfather’s grandfather, but there are more creatures on this world than simply those stunned by alchemy and potions. He pushed the briefest image of the Elysian fields into his voice. “Some of us did not fall so much as leave in protest.” There was a lie of omission there, but he need not elaborate at this time.

He took a bite of the bread and then pulled off a piece to offer her.

She took it, chewing slowly as she regarded the fringes of his countenance. It was clear from the movement of her eyes that she could see beyond the material world. Her sight was not particularly deep or focused, but it didn’t need to be to see that Olivier was more than he let on. Much more.

“I take it,” he said around a fresh sip, “that the order itself no longer has a chapter house, only the still practicing granddaughter who was told that the family’s traditions went beyond offering tasty treats?”

She poured herself another shot, blushing that she had not savored the first as she should. Olivier nodded, “Yes, another, please.”

She lit a cigarette and let the smoke drift and curl around her head before speaking. “He was Gregor Milleaux. The last of the house of Montreouse. He had left, broke his vows, married and spread his line into five children and fifteen grandchildren. I was the only girl and also the only one born with the gift, something that shook grandfather as much ass it seemed to please him. I am Joanna Milleaux-Pages, the Bearer of the Eye and the Constabulary of the Silver Known.”

Olivier nodded, taking in the pieces he knew and adding them to the ones he had only guessed at. “You are not touched by Corabella Iantha, then.”

She nodded. “This name. Grandfather spoke it with hatred. One of two names he would not have spoken in part or in whole in his house.”

“And the other was that of the Fuhrer.”

She sipped her coffee. “You know well for one who is not truly French.”

Olivier sat back and raised his cup to the coastline. “I am neither truly French or truly many other things. I might be Irish, truth told. But I don’t know that it means I am the Irish you are familiar with.”

She took his left hand in hers. “You speak in riddles and the corners of statements. Grandfather spoke of this too, less with hatred, less with fear, more with hope. He spoke of the ones who watched, who helped without judgement. Are you of them?”

Olivier turned a fresh page in his notebook and whispered a word onto the page, a single golden note on a blackened staff that smoldered along the apex. It took to the page, flaring out with an intensity of light and a puff of soot. He turned the page to Joanna. “What you speak of are the Grigori. I have worked with many of them in these past millennia on earth, but I am not of them.”

She held his hand tighter, digging a barbed ring into the side of his pinky.

He smiled, the same smile her grandfather favored her with when teaching her spells and tricks. The same provide he had when he told her of this very ritual. “I have no need to lie, Joanna. But as your grandfather should have told you, some doors can be opened only once. I give you this moment to choose if this is one you would not rather leave sealed.”

She pulled her hand away from his and regarded the melted tip of her poison ring. Her frown pulled the cupid’s bow taught. She released it after a count of seven into a bright smile, the same one she favored grandfather with whenever he crumbled under her pleading and showed her yet one more esoteric art. “There are no doors better left closed when the light can be seen around their edge.”

Olivier considered the words. “A sentiment I have heard many times, but alas, one I don’t always share. But I will speak.” He closed the notebook and placed it in his satchel. “I represent the third of the host of angels. They who did not so much rebel or defend but chose to abstain. In the days when the Adversary made his play for the throne, some chose not to fight. Their reasons were as numerous as the host itself, but they overlapped on one key point. If there was nobody to hold the center, to keep the Earth —newly formed and virgin—from suffering the shelling of a war between the Host and the Most High, what good would the war be? What would there be to rule over?”

“Sacre…” she whispered, trying to pull it together and defiling to see the scope, or even to imagine it.

“Over the years the membership of all three hosts has drifted. Some fall, some join us, some face a form of ultimate death, succumbing to an oblivion beyond anything written in a holy tome.”

Joanna frowned again, deeper than before, creasing the edges of her mouth hard enough to pull her brows into a single, fair line atop her face. “You say there were changes, falls and deaths and joining of the cause. But what of those that returned to the heavens?”

Olivier’s frown dwarfed hers in intent and echoing with the sum of his age. “That’s not really the way it works. Not really. Or. Maybe the best way to put it is that nobody has yet tried. Nobody has ever reversed their position to seek the heavens again.”

Joanna stood and gathered everything back onto a tray. “Why tell me this?”

“Because you asked. Because it is important to know. It is a secret only because it isn’t discussed. There is nothing I told you that endangers the plans of any side. That said, it is dangerous to know. There are forces aligned or misaligned that see it as their duty to keep these things hidden.”

Joanna stood proud, a regal set to her jaw and a wisp of her grandfather’s voice in her ear. “Let them come, I will see them exposed and shorn in the light.”

Olivier stood and donned his satchel. “I’m certain you are up for the task, and it keeps you from wandering to find them. This village needs you, as it has always needed your kind.”

She paused on her way back into the bakery. “But what of you? You say much but also tell me nothing of yourself.”

He shook his head. “You are to open the doors when the light can be seen around their edge. This door has not yet sprouted light. It may never do so.” He walked away, turning his attention away from the beach and back to the mainland.

He was about to depart when he felt the first few drops of rain on his brow and turned to find the beaming face of Matariel peering at him from beneath a yellow hat.

“Do you have a message for me?” He shifted the bag and closed the outer flap but did nothing for the rain falling on himself.

Matariel stomped around on the too-hard street in her yellow wellies. “Nothing to report, guv. But you looked like you needed to chat a bit, let it out a little?” Her strained cockney accent made everything she said seem insincere, or at least, ironic. Coupled with presenting in her early 20s with a trip-hop physique, she came across larger than life and a tad cartoonish.

Olivier turned his back on the mainland and walked back past the bakery, intent on the beach. Around them the rain began to fall faster and faster, the drops warm for the time of year. “Did Ireul send you?”

Matariel kept pace despite her shorter stature. “Only thing I got from her was a check up on the quake you had. Not even a rattle in a glass anywhere but Georgetown. I’m out her on usual business, you caught me in my busy season.”

Olivier picked up the pace, less to outrun her but more to lean into his thoughts. If he wasn’t going to sit in quiet contemplation he would set a record for pacing speed, if not for circuit. The sky shifted from mottled grey to a deep grey and finally arrived at a shining silver as the light from the horizon bounced through the wall of rain and cut the clouds entirely out of view. It was coming down now, a monsoon torrent of light, warm drops.

Matariel’s stomping motion was a proper prance and splatter through the rain-soaked street now, giving her an even more elfish appearance. “What’s got you down then, guv?”

Olivier looked to the sky and back to the street. “What are we doing out here, Matariel? We spend thousands of years trying to keep the planet together, to teach the humans compassion and joy, to bring them up from the dirt and dare to dream of heaven and what do they do? They horde, they bicker, they abandon and pick up tradition and ritual whenever it suits them. Thousands of years and while the planet may be physically intact it feels like its soul has been dead for at least a century.”

Matariel danced around him, stomping and spraying in increasing deep pools. Her yellow coat came untied and flapped in a breeze as she twirled and danced in her black midi shirtdress. She stomped both feet into a brimming puddle directly in his path, causing him to stop, pivot, or move away.

He stopped. “What is it now?”

She punched him in the chest and looked up into his crestfallen face. “Pffft. Ha ah ah hee hee. You idiot. I would expect this kind of talk out of Remiel or Daniel, but you? Coming from you, you sound like a complete twat.”

He flashed a crown of gold and boots of black flame as he stepped past her cut through an alley, still intent on the beach. “What they have in common with me is a sense of the big picture. Too many of you are content to pursue your duty, fulfill your Office and think nothing much of tomorrow.” He increased his pace, no longer bothering to divert from any of the debris or obstacles in his way. “It’s all felt futile lately. Too many cracks, not enough people to fill the holes. We fix one problem and there are a dozen more already in the queue. I promised to give the planet a chance to weather this war and I don’t see it.”

She laughed again, splashing and prancing alongside him as his dark footfalls melted divots in the street. “Heavy is the head, eh guv? Winning isn’t about winning every single duel, every blow, every shot. It is about surviving longer than the fighting can endure. You win by outliving those who do harm, not by outkilling them.” She took off her hat and let the rain wash through her short raven hair. “Or the rest of us maybe get along with Offices that are more verb and less esoteric conceptual bullshit.”

Olivier continued barreling forward through the streets of Calais and to the beaches, which had shuttered in the torrent, leaving tourists fleeing for their resorts or hiding in buses.

Matariel stopped stomping and floated along to keep pace. “Oh boohoo. You didn’t win an unwinnable war of attrition. You have to live and fight another day and another beyond that. You were built for war, what did you expect?”

Olivier pushed through a fence, leaving it shattered in his wake. “I expected progress. I expected gains and footholds and to feel like the campaign had momentum.”

The rain around them stopped. Matariel shook the last remnants of water off her coat. The sun pierced the clouds above them and the tourists came out of their cover, eyeing the sky with a mixture of hope and trepidation. “What you expected was to get both sides to come to the table and have a dialog? To set aside their differences and agree to start again? To be civil this time?”

Olivier descended down a short hill onto the beach proper. “Of course not. Or… I don’t want to say I did.” He stopped moving forward. “I’m being something of a tool, aren’t I?”

Matariel bent sideways at the waist, threw her arms out to the side and arched her head to look at his face. “What? No. You don’t sound like the soggiest sad sack ever at all.”

He sat down in the sand. “I wanted things to be different so hard I lost sight of how things are. It is something of a habit I have.”

She plopped next to him and rested her head on his shoulder. “If you weren’t moody, I don’t think you would be you.”

“Redemption,” he said, calming himself with the thought. “It isn’t an easy Office to hold to.”

She grasped his arm and snuggled in closer. “Maybe next time stick with your given Office and don’t go and make one up?”

He laughed. “How many times have I had this break down?”

She counted on her fingers and then shrugged. “Too many. Maybe once a century. Sometimes more.”

He laughed again. “Ebbs and flows. For every drought there is a storm, after every flood the water recedes. Nothing stays one way so long it doesn’t eventually go another way.” He hugged the willow-framed girl. “It’s the same reason you rescue spiders, isn’t it? To give them that second chance and third chance and so on.”

Matariel pushed herself from his embrace and got to her feet. “That’s one way to look at it, but mostly I just don’t like to see em drown. I’m the Angel of Rain, not the Angel of Impromptu Insect Drownings.”

Olivier pushed himself to his feet. “Let’s hope nobody needs to take up that particular Office. Well, time’s burning and I can’t afford to let myself be distracted. Thanks for the pep talk.”

Matariel skipped a few paces down the beach and then stomped and galumphed back to him. “We’re all counting on you, guv. Don’t go losing before someone can beat you.” She skipped across the beach singing to herself as tourists fled back to their shelters as the rain began fall.

Chapter 3

Olivier wasted no time. The moment he stepped out of the Wilks’ home he was no longer in Georgetown. With but a thought he traveled from the porch into a warehouse in Seattle.

The warehouse was three stories, blacked out windows, rubberized stairs running from floor to floor in random, haphazard locations. The walls were covered in monitors, the floors heavy with cobbled together computers. Micro-towers, mini-towers, custom cases, stock cases, business machines from the 80s. It was less a shrine than a mausoleum of computing technology. Power hummed through the warehouse, the floor vibrating from dedicated generators housed in the basement. Cables and tripping hazards crisscrossed the space between workstations. Shelves layered the inner walls, heavy with unused components and partially complete systems. A central chamber held modern server equipment blinking and shivering in its climate-controlled encasing.

Ireul, a young Kalanga girl of maybe 14, poked up from a pile of components and wires. Her hair was curly and short save for two swooping box braids —that looked as much like cables as hair could—running from the top of her head to the base of her skull. She wore a loose white-linen tunic over short black shorts. “Knock much?”

Olivier scowled, seething as he pulled out his pocket watch and began adjusting the hour.

Ireul crawled further out of her nest and clucked her tongue. “I’ve offered you a watch that can do that by itself a thousand times.” She moved from playful to exasperated. “Not that you need it. You know what time it is!”

Olivier finished adjusting the antique pocket watch and stomped his foot. The room trembled around him, sparks spit from a dozen computers, shelves twisted, sloughing their contents onto the floor.

“Olivier! I’ll have none of that here. You want to vent, you do it at Azers’ or somewhere in Arizona. Or Mexico. Anywhere it doesn’t cost me days to repair and sort tantrum-damaged items!”

Olivier stomped again. Another wave of darkness shot across the floor, tinged with sparks of melancholy and dread.

Ireul jumped from her nest, floating cross-legged in the air. White light flowed from her in six wispy trails. Her eyes went opaque as she set her jaw. Golden notes set on a white staff flew from her mouth like a javelin and pierced Olivier in the ear. “Quell thy fury. Remember your chosen duty!”

Olivier shuddered as the words penetrated him. He blinked, shook his head, took in his surroundings. The shelves, once cluttered were now bare as they vomited their contents clanging and snapping onto the floor. The power blinked, the hum stopped, spurted, restarted. A sudden silence and then the return of pings and beeps as the lights of a hundred monitors flashed and glowed once more. “One more thing to go on the list,” he muttered.

Ireul dropped to her feet and walked over to him. “Nothing to make up for, as I don’t hold it against you.” She rose into the air again, flashes of light shot through the room, the shelves vibrated, the mess ascended, knitting and molding back into shape before settling. The light faded and the room fell back into darkness punctuated by monitor glow and blinking indicator lights.

She dropped to her feet again. “There, no harm. No offense taken. But… Level with me. What was that?” She bent her index finger and two office chairs shot from under desks to roll next to them. She sat cross-legged in one seat and pointed to the other. “Sit, tell me all about it, I’ll get us some cocoa, if you need it.”

Olivier sat down. “No cocoa. I’m done pretending to eat for the day. I’m done pretending a lot of things for the day.”

Ireul stretched forward, bending over her legs. She planted her hands on the floor, pressing the palms into the concrete before raising up and stretching her arms over her head. “It’s been a long time since you’ve retreated into the woe-is-me. Not even a day in and this case has you backsliding and fracturing. You certain it’s worth pursuing? I can make some other calls, send it up the chain?”

Olivier pulled his notebook out and flipped through the pages he’d written since leaving the park bench.

Ireul placed her hands in her lap, though she was facing Olivier, her eyes darted from one monitor to another in a never-ending loop of shuffling glances and minute nods. “Weird way to stop pretending. Tell me what you found out, short or long, I don’t have a preference.”

He turned to the page he had opened when Laura spoke to him and held it up for her.

She reacted as if she were slapped, whipping her head to the left hard enough it spun the chair round and round.

Olivier put the notebook away. “I’ll elaborate but I assume the short-short hand has sufficed?”

Ireul steadied the chair and focused fully on Olivier. “Enochian certainly carries weight, but I’ve not seen it used so bluntly, so recklessly…” she trailed off.

Olivier nodded. “It did some damage to the neighborhood, a small quake, some busted windows, blew some wards, raised some questions. I would be certain it acted as a beacon if I didn’t know for a fact that it did no such thing.”

Ireul summoned a keyboard to her. She clicked and clacked away for a moment. “Outside of the few humans I’ve been deleting as they mention the girl and the house, nothing else has taken any interest in the spot. No change from when Guriel brought the case forward.” She snapped a few more keys and whisked the keyboard back to wherever it came from. “Even this earthquake you experienced has gone unreported. Normally, I would take the data out of the USGS, NCS, GRSN and a dozen other agencies across the planet, but their instruments didn’t register anything. Was it simply a psychic quake?”

Olivier shook his head. “I know a psychic quake when I’m near it. There was a metaphysical component, you saw the notebook page. There was also a physical one, set off a car alarm, was largely what took out the lights nearby. It was physical and it was dangerous.” He considered the ramifications of Ireul’s update. “If it didn’t trip any sensors, it didn’t permeate. No P waves or S waves, or at least nothing with enough amplitude to propagate. It felt… chaotic? Not like some Infernal churn, but almost as if the Guardian was fighting himself, trying to both send a message and contain that message but without fine control.”

“We’ve seen that happen before.”

Olivier shook his head. “No.” He braced himself, opened the notebook and stared at the infected page. He took it in slowly, resisting the impulse to turn away, to let the sounds and thoughts of the word become material. “It doesn’t add up to Nephilim. It isn’t the girl; it is the presence within her. That presence seems more trapped, more conflicted, than it does controlling.” He shut the notebook and shook his head. “Whatever is going on, it is deteriorating.”

“This unknown Guardian isn’t the only one that is broadcasting a cry for help. We going to talk about that tantrum?”

Olivier stashed the notebook and pulled out the list of names James provided. “The parents frustrated me. That combination of overly proud of what they create but with no sense of responsibility towards that creation. Remind you of anyone?”

Ireul ignored the comment. “Not enough reason to regress this far. Anything else?”

“They also gave me a cup of coffee from one of Israfel’s companies. I’ll need to track him down and ask some questions.”

“You can’t just pop in on him?”

Olivier set his jaw. Sadly, no. I’m not exactly on his white list.”


He handed Ireul the list of names. “Get me details on each of these names and I’ll track them down. The woman on back is most important. Put a trace on her, let me know if she goes near the house. I’ll deal with the Israfel issue later.”

Ireul took the list, looked at both sides and then to Olivier. “You need this for anything else?”


“Fine.” The paper flashed, leaving nothing but ozone. “While I’m tracking down these people, what is your next step?”

Olivier stood. “The Guardian is deteriorating. They can’t maintain much longer. I need to learn their identity before I solve the attack, otherwise we’re likely to lose the girl before I get other answers. I’ll talk to Azer, plumb his annoying esoterica depths for any clues. I’ll also get a lead on Israfel, they’ve been friends for longer than most.” He paused, sighed. “And yes, maybe I’ll vent to him and calm down a little.”

Ireul smirked. “Watch yourself out there. Whatever else you’ve got going on, I fear you’re headed down a path that ends in ruin.” She summoned a keyboard and got to work.

Olivier stepped forward, moving himself from Seattle to a parking lot in New Mexico. The air was bracing. The reprocessed air of the warehouse, artificially warm currents on top of artificially cool ones, was one thing. The desert air was another. Heat baked into the earth radiated up to be met with the less energetic, cold atmosphere. The smells carried a similar depth: brush, dirt, asphalt, a bevy of engine and gasoline odors.

That clash of elements was tame in comparison to the people gathered in the parking lot in which he now stood. A rally was in progress. It brought together the dregs of society, the activists, the hardliners, and the authorities into a simmering, mixed stew. A stage had been erected on the east side of the lot. Union slogans and banners covered the stage. To the north, a machining shop remained silent. Graffiti caked the façade in expletives, slogans, and demeaning caricatures.

The sun was nearly down and the sound of generators kicking on momentarily overwhelmed the blare of music, grandstanding speakers, and shouted chants. Lights flared behind the stage and spotlights lit up the machine shop. A cheer rippled through the crowd as a stencil of an extended middle finger was maneuvered over the entrance.

“They told us to stick it where the sun don’t shine and now we’ve stuck it to them!” the man at the podium roared into a microphone. This was met with a second ripple of cheers. “Fair labor, fares better! Fair labor, fares better!” he chanted. He was young, idealistic, that combination of just enough wealth in his wardrobe to undermine his talking points about the common man and the little guy. The same type of guy seen at these events all over the country and half the world.

He was in the sixth repetition of his chant when he was shoved off the podium by a tall man in his mid-thirties. Lanky but toned. Bare arms showing off intricate tattoos and a button-down shirt under a black vest. Unshaven with long black hair. The newcomer gripped the podium and sized up the crowd before speaking. His eyes were striking, brown with prominent flecks of yellow and red. He rapped the podium hard with his right fist and yanked the mic from the stand. “I see a lot of interests represented here,” his voice layered with smokey husks, “Got the union workers, company suits, boys in blue, the college dropout and college buy-outs, and of course, the bikers.” He paused to allow time for his fellow bikers to rev their engines. Two bikes near the machining shop entrance popped wheelies, traveling in opposite directions to haul a sign up. It came to rest behind the middle finger silhouette. Black foreground on a white background, it transformed the middle finger into a piston. “Union work made America.” He dropped the mic.

More bikers stepped onto the stage. They stood in a ring around the podium, passively denying access to anyone else. The man dropped off the front of the stage, threw up horns and waded through the crowd to the spotlights aimed at the machine shop. He turned back to the crowd, gave them a Bras d’honneur and then smashed the spotlight with his boot.

The crowd erupted, or at least it tried to. The younger people tried to rush the stage or the brash thug but were stopped by a combination of cops and bikers. The union workers stood their ground, cheering as students and punk kids were rounded up.

Olivier moved through the crowd, unnoticed. There were many ways to accomplish such a feat. He could have become ephemeral, intangible, float through the crowd or above them. He could have deleted his presence from their minds or convinced them he was a fleeting memory. Instead, he simply remained unobtrusive, moving where they weren’t and keeping himself from being any specific focus. He arrived on the far side of the mob and greeted the tall instigator. “Never a quiet moment with you, Azer.”

Azer laughed, a hearty, vile chuckle. The kind of laugh you hear when someone has fallen and gotten hurt. “Nice to see you, man. This?” He swept his arm across the mass of bodies struggling against each other in the dark. “This is just a little weekend reading. The union boys hired the bikers to avoid any scab problems with their strike. The suits wanted to get twice the work for half the pay. The kiddos wanted to save the planet by eliminating the work and paying the workers more at the same time. The cops are in the pocket of the suits but also taking threats and kickbacks from the MC. It’s a right mess and I’m all for it!”

Olivier shook his head. “I suspect you also played a key role in each party pushing until it all came to a head?”

Azer laughed again, pointing to the chant leader being pepper sprayed and trussed up by a biker and a cop working together. “That little shit there is the son of the guy who owns the plant. He and daddy haven’t been on speaking terms for a decade, but he’s still owed thirty-six percent of the trust after he graduates. He’ll use that money and this experience to start a company that refurbishes used parts and upcycles landfill into housing. Probably enrich a thousand lives in this city before it’s all over.” He pointed to the podium where the oldest biker was issuing orders over the mic, competing with the bullhorn of a police chief. “Rugger over there needs to hold onto power to keep his upstart lieutenant from going on a petty theft spree that will likely end in some manslaughter.”

Olivier pointed to the factory. “And management?”

“They forked out some campaign cash to a local sheriff and the mayor to get the police presence moving. If this goes on any longer, they lose more money trying to stop the union wage demands than just paying them. Don’t have to manipulate corporate America, you just play the right set of rules.”

Olivier nodded. “Managed to make everything better through violence once again?”

Azer clapped him on the back. “No, no! boss man. I’ve just pointed the violence that was already here towards good ends. The spark didn’t need any help. Just adjusting the fuses to time the right kind of blast.” He laughed again, the same dark, schadenfreude cackle as before. “What brings you this way?”

The pair walked away from the scuffle. Azer lead the way, directing them towards a side door into the machine shop. The sturdy, metal fire exit didn’t have an external handle. This meant little to Azer. He pointed a finger at the jam and made a ‘ch-chack’ noise. The odor of burning metal wafted out and the door blew open from the internal air pressure. “We’ll talk in here. I’ve got one more thing needs doing.”

Azer pushed through the door into the manufacturing floor of the shop. While the outside of the building had seen a lot of activity, the inside hadn’t been used for weeks. No power hummed through the assembly line, the tools sat idle, and dust had accumulated on the workbenches. Azer made his way to a flight of stairs connecting to the observation floor. “You wanna know what they make in this place?”

Olivier shut the door behind him. “Does it perhaps illustrate your point?”

Azer cackled. “Everything illustrates my point, yeah. Over there,” he pointed to the west wing, “they construct parts for harnesses for the US Air Force. Engine trailers, missile slings, all sorts of shit used for maintenance and repair of lethal weapons.” He gestured expansively at the area they were walking through. “Over here they manufacture steel frames for greenhouses, terraces, fire escapes.” He started up the stairs. “Under one roof you have all the tools needed to build or to destroy. To foster growth or curtail it. And out there they’re arguing about how much money people should make. Not what they should build but simply who deserves the most cash.”

Olivier followed along, content to avoid comment. Azer preferred to ask and answer his own questions and it was better to wait for the rant/sermon to conclude than to lengthen it with questions and challenges.

They passed through a doorway into the offices section suspended over the workspace below. “It’s a fitting metaphor, isn’t it?” Azer’s tone always rang with a kind of malevolent pride, a surety bordering on threatening. “The boss and his most loyal money makers sit on high, looking down on those doing the actual work.” The briefest pause. “Not that the workers are any better. They aren’t here to create a better future for anyone but themselves.” He stopped in a cubicle and shoved aside a poster of a ‘hang in there’ kitten. Behind it was a small tear in the fabric of the partition. He reached in and pulled out schematics and sketches drawn on scraps of paper. “Tony here got a promotion six months ago. Went from being a dedicated, but untalented, welder to junior VP of human resources. He was meant to be the bridge between the grunts and the office.”

Azer taped the drawings down on the next desk over. “His promotion was an olive branch. Hard-won in the last round of union negotiations. Management didn’t even need to corrupt him; he came to the position ready to roll over. He stockpiled ideas he was shown by other workers and passed them off as his own. Got his name on a patent or two. Then the workers got wise so he started paying a secondary janitor service to come through and grab things before the real service could shred and burn. Now he pockets the best ideas in his little hidey-hole and takes one in whenever he needs to seem valuable.”

He finished scrawling names on each scrap and turned to Olivier. “In the end, he’s selling out the workers, cheating management, and slowing the advancement of ideas that could reduce costs, improve production, and make better, stronger materials. All because his bank account is the only one that matters.”

Olivier, despite himself, couldn’t help smirking. “That’s the same drum you’ve been beating since we met.”

Azer chuckled, a nasal rumble that rattled the partitions and sent a printer into a fit, spitting out blank sheets onto the floor. “Aint no reason to swap up focus until the one issue gets dealt with. Not my fault it’s central to the human condition. I’m just a guy in a job.”

Olivier nodded. “We either take the path offered or find ourselves tracing a corrupt shadow of it. No other way to go.”

Azer nodded back, mocking the gesture. “You tell yourself that boss-man, and we’ll see if you manage to prove yourself an idiot or a fool.”

Olivier tapped his forehead three times. “I assume you have more to say here. I also want to hear about the last time you saw Israfel and if you can arrange a meet.”

Azer kicked a hole in the manager’s desk, spilling a trove of visas to the floor. “Fine fine, I’ll cut to the chase. The trust fund kid is about to become de facto head when daddy doesn’t quite make it to prison. The sheriff has a lot to answer for in the aftermath of that particular occurrence and is replaced by a dark horse candidate with a view that puts community over kickbacks.” He smashed a wall and pulled a bugged phone cable out of the wall. “Not sure what that will do, only knew it was there.”

“Finally, the union. They…” A twinge of sadness out of the brash man. “They were offered a fair deal in the first round of negotiations. Not every demand, but the ones that matter, the ones that were fair and counted. But union leadership wanted to suppress the deal. Delay, argue, come back in a while and appear to be bigger heroes for securing what they were already offered. Gotta do something to justify the increased share of dues they wanted had already given themselves.” Satisfied with his work, Azer took himself outside. Olivier followed without missing a second.

“This short circuited the production timeline and then management decided to cancel the deal, that forced the strike and here we are.” The parking lot was nearly vacant, save a few trussed protestors waiting for pick up. Cops and bikers shared cigarettes and flasks while the lights of emergency vehicles broke up the post-twilight serenity. “It’s going to be a day before I can get any word to Israfel. Last I spoke to him he was going seriously off-grid. Something about the rhythm of the spheres loosing a discordant tone.”

Olivier pulled the moleskin from his satchel. “I’ve encountered something that fits that description.” He shifted sideways, twenty miles into the surrounding desert.

Azer followed as easily as before. “One of those sorts of things?”

Olivier opened the notebook to the page he’d recorded from Laura. The ground cracked under his feet and Azer blushed with a sudden heat.

“Discordant is right. Was hoping he meant something a shit ton more subtle. I’ll track him down.” Azer stepped backwards out of a circle of glass that had melted around his feet. “You might want to leave that with me. Unless you have a reason to force someone momentarily into their Office.”

Olivier turned to the back of the notebook and tore out two pages. He sandwiched the discordant note between them and handed them over. “I should have picked up on that.”

Azer took the pages. “You aren’t exactly yourself when in Office. All the more reason to keep this out of your hands.”

Olivier smiled, sincerely and purposefully. “I know who I need to speak to next. Thanks for the talk.”

“Fear those that seek confirmation over confrontation. Those are the bastards that drag the chain down a hole,” Azer stated. “That’s rule one, everything else is academic.”

Chapter 2

The stairs to the second floor told a story. Wood, as old as the home but resurfaced at some point in the past decade. They were now scarred by scuffs, the wall with dents and black marks. A lot of people and equipment had moved along the stairs recently, heavier traffic than they had ever previously experienced. That traffic also took less care than the denizens would.

Olivier inhaled sharply as he arrived at the middle of the flight. Gaudy aftershave, two coats, one fainter than the other. A waft of anise, clove, and sage. Olivier paused, reached into his bag, and scribbled a note before slapping a yellowed parchment talisman on the wall.

He bent down to inspect a particular scuff on the top step. A heavy boot had pressed a deep crevice into the hardwood leaving a semi-circular imprint.

The second floor was brighter than the first. Blue crepe paper-colored walls, a hallway of soft yellow carpet. Clouds were painted above, a small handprint and the initials “LW” next to each tuft of billowing white.

Olivier inhaled again. New notes joined those from the stairwell. Blood, torn skin, oil and brass. Another set of notes in the moleskin. Another paper talisman prepared and attached to the door.

It hung loosely, the bottom hinge ripped from the molding and chips scattered from a hole on the right side. Elizabeth had done an impressive amount of damage to the solid Brazilian walnut door. The bolt had been removed from the jamb, but the handle remained.

Olivier whispered a silent prayer and stepped into Laura’s room.

The air surged. The walls wavered. His vision swam as he was overtaken by a powerful vertigo. He took a reflexive step back and the world ceased to lurch and shift.

He checked the talisman on the door. It was torn, with fragments smoldering on the hallway carpet. He collected the scraps, placing them in an external pocket of his satchel.

“Is everything alright?” called James from the foot of the stairs.

Olivier strode back to the stairwell and fixed the man with a stern look. “Everything’s fine. Could you get me a list of the first responders and police who came here? I’d like to ask them some additional questions. They may well tell me something about neighborhood activity that they were embarrassed to share in the wake of your tragedy.”

James nodded. “I’ll start working on that.”

Olivier watched James walk past the stairwell and heard a door open. Confident he wasn’t about to be interrupted, he turned back toward Laura’s room.

He pulled out two more talismans, deftly applied arcane calligraphy to each, and attached them on either side of the door. He closed his eyes and focused, a subtle, golden light wreathed his head as tendrils of dark flame crept up his ankles. He stepped back into the room.

Again, the walls wavered and the air surged. This time, however, it did not reach him. He took a second step. The air pushed harder but did not find purchase against him or his senses.

The walls were brightly colored, the same blue as the hallway but the carpet was more subdued, more gold than sunshine yellow. A veritable cornucopia of animals covered the walls in cartoonish murals that wrapped around three of the four walls. The east wall, the wall containing the shattered French doors to the balcony, changed theme. There, a mockup of the New York skyline was constructed out of oblong black and gray splotches highlighted by spots of yellow and white windows. Each building featured a small handprint and the initials “LW” on its roof.

The buildings were crude, not so much squares as square-ish. The edges of the buildings tended to flare at the top and tapered to a neat, geometric edge at the base. A few charcoal lines revealed the original guide that blocked out the underpinning of the skyline design. The bases also featured “EW” in an elaborate, well-practiced script. Atop the building nearest the door, Laura’s initials were incorporated into a tall stick figure that held a smaller figure in its arms.

Olivier made a mental note of this macabre portent before looking to the north wall. Archaic and extinct animals frolicked in a field. They were bight, colorful, and soft. The sabretooth tigers were fluffy, their teeth rounded. The archosaurs lie on their backs kicking their legs into the sky and smiling. Alongside each the “EW” initials were gracefully incorporated into the stalks of a flower or sun beams. The mural was reasoned in its layout. The further edges covered in trilobites and mega fauna, the inner ring dinosaurs and the center focus the ice-age mammals and Allotheria. The apex of the mural was a shining sun, casting a cheerful glow across the landscape and stretching into the ceiling.

The west wall featured more modern animals. Colorful birds covered the sky. Cats from great to small made their way up a jungle path from the door toward a clearing at the center. On the left side, wolves stalked through a forest gradually shrinking into joyful, happy dogs that cavorted with kittens in the clearing.

The south wall was more subdued in the color if its sky. Horses, flowers threaded through their manes and tails, galloped across a background of wildflowers and short trees. Butterflies and bees flitted among the flowers with playful, cartoonish smiles.

On the right side of the wall, a Dutch door was open across the top. Beyond it, a playroom complete with dollhouses, an easel, and a child-sized table ringed with stuffed animals in chairs.

Judging by the depressions in the carpet, the bed had been returned to its original location. The bed was another example of the Wilk’s taste for solid wood furniture. It was squat but wide, fitted with a queen-sized mattress. Not a traditional four poster bed, it was nested in a cocoon of curtains fitted into rails on the ceiling. Only one curtain, toward the south wall, remained hanging. A tattered array of fabric scraps and bent hooks filled the rest of the space.

Olivier took notice of all these details in a simple, deliberate counterclockwise turn. A total of five cuts scarred the walls. Two on the north, two on the west, and one on the south. The north wall cuts were deeper, more pronounced, cutting not just the wall but through to the beams and wiring beyond, exactly as Elizabeth had noted.

He inhaled again: slowly and deeply. Latex, ammonia, graphene, more of that gaudy, stringent aftershave. Rising above it all, faint but discernable, a haze of burnt ozone. He frowned. It wasn’t surprising but it was disappointing. A thread of brimstone or the awkward warmth of honeysuckle and vanilla would go a long way to figuring out who was involved.

He paused on the threshold to the fire escape and inspected the broken French doors. The glass was completely missing from the upper panes while the lower were melted out. The door itself was a thick wood like the internal doors. Bright white on the outside and black inside to match the skyline mural.

He knelt down, pulling a papyrus swab from an outer pocket of his satchel. He wiped it around the bottom edge of the molten glass. It sparked, a thin hissing sound escaping as the energy woven into the ancient paper mingled with the sample. Then, finally, it burst into a golden plume that faded in an instant.

Olivier smiled. A guardian had been involved.

He stepped out onto the fire escape. As he did so, he dropped his aura. It was a calculated risk. The girl drew significant attention and being seen, even in the faintest vestiges of his Office, would cause unnecessary complications. However, if the same energies that lingered in the room were present, he would be assaulted, possibly forced to jump from the fire escape itself.

The chaotic energy of the room was thankfully not present. The area was calm, the scent of fresh linen overrode even the smells of the park and the city beyond. The feeling of being wrapped up in a soft cloth basket was amplified by the subtle, artistic weave of the cloth strips as well as their surprising thickness.

Laura paid him no mind, staring out at the alley, the street, and the park beyond without so much as a twitch of her hair.

Olivier stepped close the girl, bent down and spoke in her ear with commanding tone. “I am Olivier, Prince of hell, General of the Host, seeker of Redemption. I stand beside you in the Name and ask that you identify yourself.” The words flowed from him, not so much a sound but a lyrical staff of gold and black scribbled into the air and transmitted as a string.

Laura stirred at this. Her legs straightened and her grip shifted from the bars to the top of the rail. She pulled herself up, turned and looked Olivier straight in the eye. Her affect remained flat, her motion less that of a girl and more of a marionette driven hastily and clumsily. Her head twitched to the left, her eyes drooped, and her tongue lolled. A guttural sob began to pour out. Tears flooded her face. Suddenly, she bolted upright as if electrocuted and a sound took shape above her head.

It grew. First in size, then in complexity. A writhing, snarling mixture of golden script and a lyrical staff that erupted in a chorus. The walls shook and the bulbs of the flood lights popped. The fire escape rattled as the sound reverberated between the buildings and crept through the iron stairs. Then, silence. A distant car alarm spilled into the silence and then the rest of the sounds of the city and street returned.

Laura turned away from Olivier and resumed her vigil.

Olivier stepped back and turned to the French doors as James ran into the room.

“What was that?” James was shaking, his arms raised defensively.

Olivier addressed the man as one would a puppy. “Mr. Wilks, return to the parlor and wait for my return. I will have questions for you and Mrs. Wilks.” He looked to Laura then back to James. “I’ll also provide an explanation. Please, sir.”

James took a step back to the door, the talismans catching his eye and he took another step back.

Olivier kept his tone even. “Yes, I’ll explain that as well. To the parlor, Mr. Wilks.”

James turned and walked away.

Olivier waited until the sound of footsteps on the stairs had ceased. He moved to Laura’s side and whispered his gold on black script into her ear. “I will find answers.”

He stepped back to the threshold, focused and adopted his aura to cross through the bedroom. He looked around, studying the details he had noted on the way in. Then he saw it, a single change. The building next to the door now featured another figure. It was not attached to the building but hovering to the side about a quarter of the way up. It was difficult to make out exactly what was intended. At a glance it seemed as if the arms were drawn hastily, outstretched as if falling, but there was another set pointing straight down, as were the legs. It was clear to Olivier this was a crude child’s rendition of an angel. What wasn’t clear was whether the figure was rising in flight or falling.

Olivier stepped into the hallway and checked the talismans along the door. They remained unchanged. He took out his notebook and wrote down the pertinent details of his observations, timing his notation to finish as he reentered the parlor.

James stood in the entryway, pensive. “Explanations Mr. Kelley, now.” He pointed emphatically at the couch Olivier had been sitting on before.

Olivier nodded and took a seat. “Please, Mr. Wilks, sit, or get a drink. Whatever you need to keep it together. I have a few more questions.”

James tensed, blood rushing to his head.

Olivier held up a hand. “So I know where to start with the explanation, please, Mr. Wilks.”

James fumed but made his way to the hearth and a waiting glass of port resting on the mantle.

Olivier cleared his throat and opened his notebook. “I noted a lack of religious iconography in your home. No personal talismans or jewelry on either of you, as well. Do you have a background with any religion or neighbors that have perhaps shared religious experiences?”

Elizabeth sat up, fully attentive for the first time. “James was raised Catholic but hadn’t seen the inside of a cathedral since his Confirmation. My family is culturally Jewish Armenian, but I’d not considered the faith of my people. That is, until I became pregnant with Laura.”

James refreshed his port and Elizabeth’s wine. He paced self-consciously as she continued.

“I was sixty-one at the time. A few abortions in the late 70s. Not all of them with the benefit of medical staff. When it came time to want children, I was told there was irrevocable damage.” She took a drink and gestured for another cigarette.

Olivier pulled a lighter from his bag. “Yours was compromised a bit earlier, here.” He lit her cigarette and James finally sat down.

Elizabeth took a short drag inhaling through her nostrils, comforted by the smell more than the nicotine. “We gave up the though of children as we passed through our 40s. Adoption was considered but we were busy with careers. It never felt like a priority. Then one day I visited my GP with a shortness of breath, dizzy spells and was told I was with child. Laura is our little miracle baby…” Elizabeth drifted off in a jagged sob and curled up on the couch once more.

James held a weak smile for his wife’s benefit, sighed, and continued, “I returned to my childhood parish. I’ve lived in Georgetown almost my whole life, save a few years of travel and college. I was excited to have a child in my life and drawn to give her the same traditions I had grown up with.”

Olivier took diligent, rapid notes throughout the explanation but snapped the notebook closed suddenly. “Mr. Wilks, I asked you for a list of names earlier. I’ll still need that, but I assume that the priest of your childhood parish is one of the people on there?”

James nodded. “Father O’Hugh. He was my second call after the police and emergency services had come and gone.”

Olivier reopened his notes. “Laura turned seven how long ago?”

James looked at a calendar by the door and mouthed numbers as he counted. “Her birthday was in September, so nearly two months now.”

Olivier pressed the point, “Reuniting with your traditions, you had her baptized shortly after birth?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Did she take her first communion or complete her Confirmation?”

James looked to Elizabeth. She shook her head. James pounded his leg with a fist. “I wanted to be present for that. We didn’t attend church, but we donated time and money to their social efforts. I worked a few weekends on charity fundraisers and the like to get O’Hugh to agree to let us have the ceremony. He would have preferred Elizabeth convert and that I renew my own communion, but we didn’t see the point. As excited as we were for our child, we wanted the cultural milestone, we didn’t…” he paused and looked to Elizabeth again, “We aren’t people of faith.”

Olivier filled in the blanks, “You were called away for business a few times, missed the day, rescheduled, and then missed it again. Did this lead to an ultimatum from Father O’Hugh?”

James shook his head. “Not as such. He called me while I was in New York last, told me that I was doing a disservice to the Church, wearing his patience thin. But mostly he said I was risking Laura’s soul to leave her unsealed so long after the Age of Reason.” He stood, jabbing a finger in Olivier’s face. “You. Are you telling me that my daughter is, what? Possessed? That the devil came for her because of this? What kind of psychologist would believe any of that!”

Olivier remained still, subtly covering his notes with one arm as he met James’ trembling gaze. He took a breath and forced a languid quality into his voice, a sound shaped by hours in a library, pages turned and aging in grand halls of learning. “Mr. Wilks, I am not here to accuse you or to create questions. When a child faces trauma like your daughter has, they regress into iconography, symbols, broad feelings of comfort and stability. There need not be anything more real behind your Catholic heritage than there needs be behind the notion that the full moon causes lycanthropy. What is important is that Laura be introduced to symbols and be able to draw upon them. If she were speaking in Portuguese or drawing Senegalese Yoruba on the wall, that would be of concern.”

James sat down, his hands and legs trembling. “I just need answers, Mr. Kelley. We can’t keep going like this.”

Olivier tapped his notes for emphasis. “I’m getting a clearer picture. If you would stay with me a bit long, I have a few more questions.”

James nodded.

“Now then,” Olivier started, “the paintings and murals upstairs. From the initials, I assume that Laura participated in the work but that you, Mrs. Wilks, are the primary artist?”

Elizabeth remained fetal on the couch, her voice a patchwork of croaks and sobs, “Does it matter? Does it help Laura?”

Olivier offered James a warm smile. “I ask because any information will narrow down the options and help me find answers faster. Why don’t I ask my other question to James while you collect yourself. A few minutes of your time and then I’ll be gone. For now. I’ll return once I’ve followed up some leads, but I am confident Laura has a strong chance of recovery.” He considered pushing an emotion into the space but balked. It was so much to ask of them after his initial offer of hope, he couldn’t tip the scale any further.

Elizabeth unwound from the couch and stood shakily. James moved to steady her. She clung to her husband and sobbed. “James, give me a moment to collect myself. Make us some coffee.” She stepped past him, moving beyond the stairs and further west into the house to a small washroom opposite the kitchen.

James watched her go, his thin mask of bravery cracking even before she closed the door. “If you’ll join me in the kitchen, Mr. Kelley? I’ll answer any questions while I prepare something.”

The kitchen, unlike the parlor, was decorated in a modern, minimalist style. Black tiles ringed the cooking surfaces and set-off the eggshell walls. The appliances were high-end, polished silver metals gleamed from the range to the fridge to the dishwasher. Despite the décor, the kitchen was original to the house and featured a dumbwaiter in one corner. It was sealed with a heavy brass padlock. “Just Oliver is fine. Now, the east wall is quite different from the other parts of the mural and the hallway. Whose idea was that?” Oliver held his notebook ready, displaying rapt, but courteous, attention.

James opened a cupboard and pulled out a small bag of coffee beans. A simple brown bag, the logo featured a rustic, stone-aged shovel standing in soil that had produced a small sapling. Above the shovel’s handle the name of the brand, Adamah, beneath the soil the same in Hebrew script. James scooped beans into a grinder and noted Olivier’s interest. “A gift from some uncle of Elizabeth’s. Single source Ethiopian. Not Fairtrade, I’m afraid.”

Olivier shook his head. “I’ve a passing familiarity with the brand. Anyway, the mural?”

James held up one hand while the burr grinder whirred away. He scooped the fresh grounds into restaurant-grade espresso machine. “It was Laura’s idea, but it was my influence overall.” He turned on the machine and spoke in bursts as he fetched cups, sugar cubes, cream, and chocolates which he arranged on a vintage silver tray. “Elizabeth bonded with Laura instantly, as tends to happen. I took on some big contracts during the pregnancy, hoping to shore up the finances.” He sighed. “I know, WASP problems, but I didn’t come from money like Elizabeth did and I wanted to avoid feeling… lesser? The gifts that were rolling in from her extended family. A litany of cousins and aunts and uncles showering us with gifts. I missed the birth. I was in Seattle approving plans for a housing development.”

He steamed milk in a silver carafe, using the steam as an excuse to wipe tears from his face. “When I returned, I swore I would always be there for her. That was part of why I came back early from that last trip…” His hand shook from the thought nearly sloshing the hot milk. He took three breaths, steadying himself. “It’s fine, Oliver. I know. There was nothing I could have done. Anyway,” He put the carafe on the try and started pulling shots from the machine, arranging them in a tight circle at the center of the tray, “I went overboard trying to make up for that lost time. I didn’t exactly have child-rearing in mind at this stage of life, I don’t know how to be warm or silly. All I know is my work, so I would sit with her and read from an architectural text or magazine. Explaining the angles of the buildings. The supports. The importance of light and space. Anything to just spend time with her. She would often fall asleep early on and I would hold her and finish the chapter or the article, hoping my voice and intent would get through.”

He picked up the tray. “Elizabeth, we’re set here.” He nodded to Olivier and returned to the parlor. He set the tray on the end table next to his customary couch. “Please, sit, I’ll serve once Elizabeth is out. When we repainted the nursery, transforming it into a proper bedroom, we asked Laura what she wanted. She was obsessed with animals; we frequented the zoo and the aquarium often. She surprised me by asking for one wall to be about buildings. ‘I want a daddy wall’ she said.”

The washroom door opened, and Elizabeth came out. She had washed her face and put her hair up into a tight bun. Her blouse was straight and tucked. She was every bit the picture of New England old money that the house presented. She moved the pillows from the arm of her couch and rearranged them along the back before sitting down. She gave James a curt nod and then fixed Olivier with an inviting smile. “How do you take your coffee?”

Olivier took a moment to answer, weighing their pain against the veneer of normality they presented. “Americano, with a touch of milk, just enough to cut the acid,” he said.

James started preparing the coffees, pouring milk, water, and espresso shots with a practiced hand. There was a slight smile in Elizabeth, the comfort of the ritual, the admiration of her husband’s engineering proclivities. “Worried about ulcers, Mr. Kelley?”

Olivier smiled, sheepishly, “Just, Oliver, please. Yes, can’t be too careful in my line of work.”

Elizabeth nodded. “You deal with this type of thing often?”

Olivier sat took the finalized cup from James and sat back. “He didn’t need to care about such mundane problems as ulcers, headaches, or aches but it was important to allow the Wilks to offer their own form of empathy and succor. Humans are far better at helping with pain than enduring it. “Almost exclusively. This is not to say that there’s anything routine or banal about what is happening to Laura. I don’t treat this as a statistic, but, if it helps, know that I’ve dealt with similar situations many times.”

Elizabeth took her own coffee and sipped it. “Wonderful, James, as always.” Then, to Olivier, “Next you’ll say you’ve never lost a patient or had a case end badly.” Her lips curled with disgust, creasing well-worn lines. She’d dealt with toxic positivity and being oversold before. Still, her eyes watered as she said it, she was near a breaking point.

Olivier exhaled slowly, a mixture of fire, cascading darkness, heat, and thousands of years of loss all fell out, unbidden. “No. I would never say that. No false hope, no lies of convenience.” He sipped his coffee. The taste had a wistful quality, one that carried memories of a world abandoned long ago. “I won’t give you numbers or offer percentages and chances. I have been through this kind of thing; I know what to look for and how to act. If I find the right information, I can alleviate the issue. If I can’t find the answers, the case becomes terminal quickly.” He watched a grim mask descend on each parent. “As it stands, I have some answers and further questions. We’ve not hit a stall yet. Please, tell me about the art on the walls of Laura’s bedroom and any discussion you had with her while creating them.”

Elizabeth drained her coffee and handed it to James who set about fixing her a second cup. “Only one more, dear.” She closed her eyes, reminiscing. “I painted the first mural while the room was being prepared as a nursery. Five months pregnant, glowing with pride, beaming with each stroke.” She tilted her head up and stroked her left arm from elbow to wrist. “The walls depicted seasons while also illustrating separate biomes and epochs of earth. Spring was the morning, an ocean carrying little more than plants and Protista. That was later covered by the cityscape. Next was summer, day, plains filled with prehistoric animals. The jungle represented modern animals and the evening. The south wall contained night, winter, and mountains. The animals here gave way to some flights of fancy, mystical creatures from folklore. Aside from the city, that was the wall that underwent the most change.” Elizabeth opened her eyes and cocked her head at James. “It’s strange, the older Laura got the more she disliked the fantasy elements. She still liked the animals cartoonish, simple, safe. But she wanted them to be real. The unicorn and Pegasus became simple horses, though they kept their flowery manes. The rocs and phoenix morphed into parrots. Colorful but mundane.”

Olivier took notes throughout her explanation, deftly resting his coffee in one hand and writing with the other. “What is your background in art, Elizabeth?”

“I was introduced to art by my own mother, classically trained and tutored in Greece before attending undergrad at the Yale School of Art and graduate work at the Sorbonne. Originally, I studied the Pre-Raphaelites but later emphasized Medieval Christian art. I’ve worked as a curator, restorer, and gallery coordinator. My own art, while sufficient, never had enough of a spark to be more than a pastime.” This last statement uttered rapidly, a bitter litany that she’d perhaps repeated too often, even if seldom out loud.

Olivier drank deeply of his coffee, not to finish but to give the room space. James, darting between his wife and the visitor, looking for someplace to insert his own guilt. Elizabeth looking for someone to change her past but unwilling to sacrifice the present. He soaked in the ambiance of the parlor, the way it lacked any evidence of the child upstairs. These were walled-off people. They held quick and fast to their categories of work, home, and child to the point that none were allowed to overlap with the others. “Laura broke the rules, here, didn’t she?”

A stunned, quizzical silence from both. Elizabeth tried to speak but shrank. James stared into the fire to avoid eye contact.

Olivier continued, “She embraced your work lives –art and architecture. She mixed the past with the present; she was migrating out of the space you kept her in.”

Another voiceless protest from Elizabeth.

“The clouds spilled out from her own room and into the hallway, the carpet was changed to accommodate her. But she almost fell down the stairs and you panicked, sealed her up. The psychologist was called then. Behavioral problems, medications that didn’t need to be. Then she was quiet, and your world returned to normal. To a sense of safety that protected you.” Olivier shook his head. “You doubted your art but every time you entered her room, she wanted you to make something new, to express yourself more earnestly.” Then to James, “And you, she wanted you to be a part of her mother’s work. To show that you belong in this world, that her old-world money didn’t make you lesser in the relationship. In every conceivable way, she made you whole.”

Olivier stood. “I have what I need to begin. It would be best if you kept to the house, didn’t invite in any more experts, police, and spiritual leaders. Especially whoever did that appalling smudging in the stairwell and Laura’s room.”

Elizabeth, struggling to speak broke free. “What?” she addressed James, coldly.

James looked at Elizabeth, sheepishly. “She came by the second day. You were in your room, zonked from whatever Dr. Stallings gave you. She said it would help release the bad energy. Clear the channels so Laura’s spirit could return to her body.”

Elizabeth slammed her coffee cup onto the floor. “You let my sister into this house?”

James was on his feet, moving behind the couch and pressing himself into the wall, hands raised. “I don’t know! She wanted to help. We NEEDED help, Liz. Christ. We still need help.”

Elizabeth stalked past Olivier and ascended the stairs. “See out our hope-bringer and clean that up, James. Don’t let my rug stain.” Her footsteps echoed as she took the second flight up and then thundered as she stomped into her rooms overhead.

Olivier put his cup on the tray and stowed his notebook in his bag. “I’ll need that list of visitors. And the name of this sister, which I assume you intentionally left off the list to avoid this exact circumstance.”

James nodded, scribbled the name on the back of the list he’d printed in the study before and handed it over. “Why? Why did you bring that up?”

Olivier took the paper and stashed it in an outer pocket. He walked to the entryway and picked up his coat. “It was important that you both understand what keeping things from me can cost your family. Anything you don’t tell me risks your daughter’s life. When I come back, I expect this lesson will be remembered.” He opened the door and walked out.

Chapter 1

“Fuck me!”

The outburst startled a middle-aged man in a short, plaid coat. He looked up toward the sound and then immediately down to the sidewalk. After a moment he looked up again then spun in a slow semi-circle searching the horizon for cameras, police, bystanders, anything to explain the situation in which he found himself.

The voice propositioned him at every turn. “Yeah, up here, you wanna fuck me real good. Just come on up and whip it out.”

The man looked up again, locking eyes with the demure, waif-like girl who called to him. Wispy blonde hair and bright, glassy green eyes. She sat motionless on the fire escape adjoining the second floor of a three-story midcentury townhome. The house itself occupied the middle section of the block, bordered on the right by a nearly identical home and on the left by a field wreathed in ivy and hedges. Beyond that, another townhome marked the far-left edge of the block. Behind it, another row of houses, elevated as the blocks ascended to a peak some five streets beyond. Narrow alleys separated the houses from each other. They contained a fire escape of wrought iron steps and small balconies winding down from the third story to the second with a spring-loaded ladder connecting the second floor to the ground.

The second-floor escape was wrapped entirely in cloth. It resembled, depending on the angle, either a padded cell or an Easter basket. Bright pastel pink blankets, more subdued blues and green towels, and the fluttering remnants of white sheets wound about the bars. Her legs were pushed through the bars, chubby about the ankle and the arch of the foot. Her right knee was scuffed. The legs were bare but even in the shadows of the escape, it was clear she wore a dressing gown pulled up and pressed into the bars.

The man backed away, casting nervous glances behind and above until he got to the left corner and bolted up the street.

Despite the graphic taunts she cast, she presented a flat affect. Her words carried a variety of pitches and intonations, adding a hyperactive, almost gleeful quality to her words. However, she remained stiff, almost inanimate, while speaking. Her legs didn’t so much as sway in hours. Her hand held tightly to the bars in a grip that left her knuckles white and her thumbs red.

Olivier sat on a small bench in the park across the street. Late 30s, average height and build, his wavy hair was brown but could appear reddish in the right light. He wore a blue t-shirt under a black dress shirt and matching dark-colored jeans. The t-shirt hung loose with the words ‘free the’ visible. He wiggled his worn sneakers in the grass. It was early spring and the grass was overgrown, waiting for that first cut to mark the emerging season. He made notes to himself in a tattered moleskin. Like many behaviors, writing notes was an affectation learned through centuries of scrutiny. “Subject: Laura Wilks. Seven years old. Blonde hair, green eyes.”

Hanging on the back of the bench, Guriel nodded emphatically. A tow-headed scamp with ruddy, cherubic cheeks and a twisted nose. His short pants were ragged from wear and his thick corduroy coat was smeared with grease and dirt. “It’s like I told ya, Ollie. She’s been up there for weeks yelling at anybody who comes by. She don’t eat or sleep. Just sits there all day and night yelling shit at people.”

Olivier cringed, “What’s with the Oliver Twist accent? You’re in New England, not England England. Do people not question you?”

Guriel pulled himself up and over the bench, flopping and rolling to the grass on the other side. “It’s all part of a schtick. Not like most people listen to me. I claim to be from Boston and they let it go. Look, I’ll do my thing, you do yours.”

“Anything else you can tell me?”

“String of experts gone through. Doctors, psychiatrists, I saw a news van but that didn’t go anywhere. Can’t report on a kid yelling obscenities on broadcast networks. Small community, probably kept the Internet away, sir.”

Olivier chuckled. “That would be Ireul. She’s been redirecting traffic.” He sighed and looked at his watch. “I’ve got to consider my approach carefully.”

Guriel scraped grass off his filthy coat and stomped his feet as if he were cold. “You’re the boss. I know it’s weird but why bother poking into it?”

Olivier opened the moleskin and made another note. “It smells off. A few days of aberrant behavior we can point to trauma. Weeks? This has supernatural written all over it.”

Guriel shrugged, “I dunno. It’s weird, sure, but I don’t feel anything in particular.”

“That’s just it. Nobody has done anything about it. A nefarious agent would be stoking the misery. The Host would be cleaning it up. I’ve not heard any chatter either way. Even as the Angel of Orphans and Whelps you’re barely picking up anything.”

Guriel shrugged again. “I’ve got a thousand new cases a day. I kick the weird stuff up to management. So, manage.”

“I’ll take it from here. If I need anything else, I’ll find you later. Best to keep the loop small, though, right?”

“I get ya.” Guriel slapped the back of the bench and waved as he departed.

Olivier remained nearly motionless on the bench for much of the day, observing the foul-mouthed girl and the reactions she garnered. Several times, her parents answered the door to offer apologies to outraged pedestrians. As the sun descended beyond the horizon of Georgetown, Olivier stood from the park bench, shouldered his satchel, and made his approach.

“Hey you! You need some? Only thirty a pop. I work cheap but I do quality. Come on, it’s okay to look. Yeah, up here. Seriously, buddy. Thirty-seven and I’ll touch it, stroke it, stick it wherever you want. Thirty-seven for thirty. Just come into the alley and pony up.”

Olivier crossed to the door of the townhome and knocked on the door. He notated the interaction, word for word as he waited. The door cracked and he stepped back, fully aware that the exhausted parents would be more comfortable if they didn’t feel crowded in their own home.

An older man opened the door. Once trimmed eyebrows growing unruly, face pallid and eyes puffy. He stood behind the door, regarding Olivier through a crack only wide enough to extend a hand through. He was missing a button from his green knit vest. “Yes?” he inquired with a sense of longing.

Olivier offered a card. “I’m sorry to bother you, Mr. Wilks. I’m a psychologist, Oliver Kelley. I heard about your daughter and wish to offer my services.”

Mr. Wilks took the card with trembling fingers and held to the door like an anchor. “I… don’t know. We’ve… we’ve already had several doctors in. I don’t think…” He gave up and pulled the door open, gesturing Olivier in.

The sitting room was immaculate, midcentury décor with reds and golds setting off the exposed beams and hardwood flooring. An 18th-century Tabriz rug acted as a centerpiece for the décor. It was in impressive shape, faded along one corner but well-preserved. Diffuse track lighting bathed the walls in an inviting, almost candlelit glow while protecting the piece from damage. It was bordered on three sides by short sofas, offering little more space than two adults would occupy. On the north wall, a gas fire burned behind tinted glass.

Mr. Wilks pointed to the couch opposite the fire, nearest the worn elements of the rug. “Please, sit and have your say.”

“Thank you. I know this is an imposition in a trying time. I’ll explain my interest, and my qualifications shortly.” Olivier removed his suede coat and handed it to Mr. Wilks before sitting.

Mrs. Wilks lolled sleepily against the arm of the couch to his right. She wore pearls, her hair in a bedraggled bun. A tight cinched blouse, buttoned to the collar, was partially untucked and her skirt had ridden up to reveal knicks and tears in her dark stockings. Her left ankle was bandaged, and her toes were bound by a cast. She held a partially full wine glass in one hand and a smoldering cigarette in the other. She sneered, “Stop letting them in James. I can’t take it anymore.”

James hung the coat on a startlingly bare rack in a recess near the door. Tufts of fur and feathers on the floor the only indicators that the rack had ever been used. He turned back to Olivier and strode to the couch bordering the inner wall. “Elizabeth, please! I apologize for my wife, it’s… been—”

Olivier cut him off. “No need. I understand.” Then, to Elizabeth, “I apologize for intruding. I’m certain you’re at wits-end with experts and promises of hope.” He allowed a touch of sorrow into his voice. A sense of time spent at sea and the grim tedium of walking through an endless desert. “Hope is important. However, it is far more important to understand. I can’t promise it will be alright, but I can promise I will find out what has happened to your daughter.”

Anger bled from Elizabeth’s eyes and her jaw loosened. Tears welled up and started to slowly flow. She placed her wineglass on a rich oak end table and took a long drag on her cigarette, nearly extinguishing it. “I was ready to smash you in the face with that glass. Shriek and send you out the door bleeding.” She stubbed out the cigarette and gestured for another. James picked up a silver case from his own end table and handed it to her. “Yes, James, I said that was the last one, but…”

James shook his head and retrieved a silver Zippo. “I understand.”

Olivier breathed in the lingering smoke and let it drift through him as the fire flared and new smoke rose to join it. He tapped his pen on his knee. “Please, start from the beginning and tell me what’s happened.”

James threw the lighter at the fireplace and collapsed into the sofa. “You don’t even know what’s happening and you say you understand? You have answers when you don’t even have questions!”

Olivier glanced to the weeping Elizabeth and back to the trembling James. He pushed the thought of a winter morning warming with the rising sun into his eyes and offered a small smile. “I was told some details when the case was referred to me. I don’t like to let secondhand accounts color my judgment. Please, in your words, explain when this started. What you noticed. How you felt.”

James retrieved the lighter and remained standing at the hearth in silence.

It was Elizabeth who finally spoke. “It was the last weekend in February. James was wrapping up a project at work, plans for an office building in New York City. I put Laura to bed and came downstairs. We finished book club, and I sent the ladies home.” She picked up her wineglass, scrutinized the legs running down the sides, and placed it back down. “I wasn’t expecting James to be back until Monday morning. I woke suddenly when I heard a noise of glass shattering.”

James kicked at the glass of the fireplace absently, his hands gripped tight around the lighter. “My flight was early. I came back in the early hours of Sunday morning. Four or maybe five.”

Elizabeth took another drag. “It was four thirty-seven exactly.” She turned to Olivier and offered a weak smile. “I checked with the cab company.”

Olivier nodded. “Details like that are important, thank you.” He made a flurry of quick, exacting notes. “Please, continue.”

Elizabeth’s smile faded. She took a breath. “I ran downstairs as soon as I heard the glass break. It was from Laura’s room. The door was stuck.” She gestured to her foot. “I kicked it in, but it wouldn’t budge.”

James pounded the mantle piece. “I was just outside. I could hear the sounds as Elizabeth kicked the door. I wanted to run to the door, but Laura was out on the balcony. She was struggling, screaming. It looked like she was being pulled or carried but I didn’t see anyone. It was dark, the floodlights across the alley weren’t on.” He gripped the lighter harder, hard enough the cap flew off.

Elizabeth winced as the cap clattered to the stone and then under the couch. “James… calm down.” She addressed Olivier directly, “Our neighbor, Mr. Arnold Carmine swears the lights were in good repair. We’ve tested them several times since.”

Olivier made further notes, his rhythmic scratching invoking the practiced surety of a composer jotting down notes to a score. “Continue,” he said at length.

James continued, “There were no lights, no moon. I couldn’t see who had Laura. I only saw her being carried along. Her feet weren’t touching the ground but were kicking, she was punching at the attacker, but her eyes were closed.”

Elizabeth picked up the thread, “I got the door open then. I sprained my ankle and broke two toes. I couldn’t tell when that happened. The door was held so tight then it just came open. I rushed inside.” Her breathing was uneven and she sniffled as she spoke, years of training in decorum the only thing keeping her from bawling and smearing her makeup in her hands.

Olivier held up a hand. “Please, Mrs. Wilks. Finish your wine. Take a moment.” He stood and crossed to James at the fireplace. “If I may?” he gestured to the Zippo oozing lighter fluid down James’ arm.

James handed over the broken Zippo.

Olivier took it and led James to the couch opposite Elizabeth. “You should have a drink as well. But before that, finish with your account.”

James blinked through his own tears and huffed. “I went into the alley and tried to block their escape. The ladder didn’t move and I didn’t hear anyone heading up but they must have gone to the roof because they dropped Laura and were gone.”

Olivier poured a glass of port from the bar behind the couch he had been sitting in. “I assume you checked the alley for footprints, signs of entry?” He handed the glass to James.

James took it, nodding. “I lapped the block three times looking for anything.”

Elizabeth placed her empty wineglass on the end table and moved to stand. Olivier waved her back down and fetched the open bottle from the bar. “Alright. Now, Mrs. Wilks. What did you see when you came into the room?”

She took the wine and settled into the arm of the couch. “The room was a mess. The bed was flipped over. There were gashes in the walls. Gashes! Not just the wallpaper! Beams and wiring were cut and broken. The glass of her balcony doors was melted into the frame where it wasn’t broken.”

Olivier returned to his seat and took another set of notes. “And how was Laura after the attacker fled?”

James steadied his glass with both hands and took a long sip. “Elizabeth tried to pull her in but she screamed and struggled. She refused to come inside.” He pointed to his bruised cheek and pushed his hair aside to show a bandage on his left ear. “She punched me when I tried to pick her up, damn near tore my ear off.”

Elizabeth drained her glass and held it loosely in front of her, staring at Olivier through the tinted crystal. “I didn’t try to touch her after she attacked James. Two firemen were hospitalized. As long as nobody touches her, she just sits there calling out her horrible vulgarities. Trauma they say.”

Olivier made a show of looking over his notes, turned back two pages, and then forward again. “The cloth tied around the fire escape?”

James shook his head. “Every blanket, sheet, and towel, all of her clothes aside from the dressing gown she was wearing. In the first day, while we were still filing reports, she would just have them in her hands, tearing them up and wrapping the escape. Nobody saw her collect them.”

Elizabeth dropped her glass and wept openly. “By the second day, she was done moving. She’s just sat there. Sat there for weeks yelling obscenities.”

Olivier picked up the glass and offered a handkerchief to Elizabeth. “With your permission, I would like to check Laura’s room, maybe ask her some questions?”

James nodded and stood. “I’ll show you the way.”

Olivier grabbed James’ shoulder. “Tend to your wife. I’ll be back down in a few minutes.”