Catch a fistful of sky

Fairy Tale | October 13, 2010

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Riley. She was not a princess, but she might as well have been. She lived in the kingdom of California, in the duchy of the City of Angels. She was a pretty girl, all of ten years old, and she had long brown hair and green eyes. She was tall for her age, and adventerous beyond good sense sometime. She was mature for her age though, and while she dreamed, she kept both feet planted in this world.  Riley lived in a big house along the beach and had lots of friends, and generally lived an enchanted life as the country around her twisted in the throes of malaise.

Her mother was a lovely lady who was just turning into her 30th year but looked like she was still very young. She loved Riley very much and raised her well. Her mother gave Riley her height, her build, and her looks, for the most part. Her brown hair and green eyes were not from her father, Matt, who was fair and whipcord lean like her mother. She knew Matt was not her real father, but since her mother didn’t really know her real father, it was not something she dwelled on.

However, her mother seemed to be getting weaker and sicker more and more often, and healers were called in but couldn’t figure out a reason. It was the first time real adversity raised its head in Riley’s life. She had been raised well though, and was strong for her mother, even as the lady moved around less, stayed in bed more, and couldn’t raise her voice very high at all. Riley knew what her mother, her father, and the healers were trying to conceal: Her mother was dying.

She faced this fact while watching the moon travel over the Ocean Pacific, her bay windows open slightly to let the Autumn breeze in. Sitting up in her bed, Riley frowned and forced the tears back down.  If she started now, she knew something would break inside of her, and she didn’t think it would help her mother.  Flopping back down, she looked over at her night stand, at the solitary statuette that had been there for years. There had been argument between her mother and father over it, and she hadn’t puzzled out some of the words they threw around, only that she had been given the choice and she liked the statue when she saw it.

It was an angel crushing a demon underfoot, sword raised high. The person who had crafted it had carved it simply – the angel’s face was  a few lines. the armor a raised surface painted grey – but infused with an elegance all the same. Her mother had told her it was “some Catholic thing from a friend” and wouldn’t expand on it. Her father didn’t say anything at all about it. Being born into a family of athiests, she had no idea what it was beyond a pretty statue for years until she told a Hispanic friend about it at her private school.

“San Miguel. Saint Michael, you anglos call him,” Ana said around a mouthful of tuna fish sandwich. “He threw the Devil out of Heaven and defends us from wickedness.”

“The Devil was in Heaven?” asked Riley.

“Yes,” Ana said, acquiring a lecturing tone that was common to her. “He was the most beautiful angel, until he rose against God, and Saint Michael led the good angels against him and defeated him.”

Riley absorbed that, and when she got home she stared at the figurine for a long time, wondering why someone would send her such a thing.

The girl thought back to her friend’s words while she lay in bed with her mother dying upstairs. She had no clue how to pray, it was something she only saw on movies and never thought of doing for herself. That being said, she kneeled on the hardwood of her floor and crossed her fingers and closed her eyes in front of the figure.

“Saint Michael. I know I’m not a Catholic or a Christian or even really believed in God before this point, but I know God wouldn’t want my mother to die because she is a good woman even if she doesn’t believe in Him either. Please help my mother get better and I will believe in God. Amen,” she prayed. She opened her eyes and looked around. She didn’t feel different, or like anything had happened.

“Stupid, stupid girl,” she told herself, and crumpled into her bed. What did she think was going to happen, she asked herself. She fell asleep as the tears came out at the corner of her eyes.

She awoke to the cold.

She could see her breath fogging in the air as she woke up, looking at the bay window that was now fully open. Bare feet padded across a floor that was freezing to the touch, and she tried to close the window. It would not budge. As she pushed against it she didn’t notice the creature in the sky until its shadow had fallen across her and made her look up. Riley stopped what she was doing, and looked up at the angel descending in a wide lazy circle towards her window.  It came in glory and grace, and she could make out that while it was dressed in the same outfit she saw soldiers wear, it was a very real sword that hung from his belt. The angel pulled up in front of her, and she only gazed at him, perfect in form with a short buzzcut.

“Riley?” the being asked, arching one eyebrow.

“Are you Saint Michael? I mean, I didn’t believe,” she began, and the laugh that came from the angel was silvery and light.

“No, no. But he sent me. And as for belief, its not my job to judge,” the angel told her, his voice as light as his laughter. “I’m Zephiel, the Arch General’s – Saint Michael’s – aide de camp. Would you mind walking with me for a ways? He’d like to help your situation,” he told Riley.

“Walk where? I don’t have wings,” she told him, while mentally she reminded herself that this was all a dream.

“Right here,” Zephiel told her, and suddenly he was standing on a road paved out of cobblestones that glowed in the moonlight. “It was just you couldn’t see it before,” he told her.

Reminding herself it was still a dream, she stepped out of her room and onto the stone path, which was warm beneath her bare feet. The soldier-angel offered his arm to her, and she realised with a start she was meant to take it. Arm and arm, the two walked down the path and over the ocean.

Eventually they came to a small landing, where several other platforms hovered in space. Other angels were coming and going at what seemed a constant pace, and she had to keep telling herself it was just a dream to not stand and gawk at what she was seeing. Zephiel stopped short, and pointed to a figure sitting alone at a table. It was a burly figure of a man, dressed in the same camoflague as Zephiel, but much more worn and the top with sleeves rolled up to the elbows. A rifle laid next to a chair while his sword was laid next to whatever he was looking at on the table.

“Michael, Prince of Heaven, Champion of God, General of the Heavenly Host, waits on you, child of Adam. Listen to what he has to say,” Zephiel told her. She looked at him to ask a question, and he placed one finger on her lips. “Go to him, and good luck,” he said, and then fell backwards off the path before taking wing.

Alone, the small girl approached the winged figure, trepidation and fear mingling with awe and curiosity. Zephiel had been perfect physically, while the man in front of her was not. His face was lined and rugged, the eyes blue and hard with plenty of wrinkles at the edges. His crewcut was somewhere between light blonde and grey, but for all that he radiated power, like when she had seen an elephant the year they went to Africa.

“Take a seat, child,” said Saint Michael, and his voice was like the rest of him: Rough, tired seeming, but commanding all the same. “Coffee? Tea? Milk? What in Creation can we get you?”

“Just…” she stammered, and blurted out the first thing she could think of, “Pomegrante juice please!”

The archangel’s brows raised slightly, and he chuckled. “A first time for that. Hopeful,” he told her, as he moved his hand and a glass of the juice appeared, condensation glistening on the side. “Here,” he said as he pushed it towards her.

Riley took a sip, and looked over the table at the archangel who looked back at her. “This is just a dream, right?”

“Its a chance to help your mother,” Saint Michael side stepped, and sipped quietly from a battered canteen cup.

“You answered my prayer!” Riley exclaimed.

“I answered your father’s,” the prince corrected.

“Matt? But he doesn’t believe in God,” said Riley. She was confused when Michael shook his head.

“Your other father,” he corrected gently.

“But he’s dead. Did he pray from Heaven?” she asked.

“No, he’s quite alive. Who do you think sent you the figurine?” Another gentle question.

“But Mom said she didn’t know him and he had died before I was born,” Riley told him slowly, putting down the glass, afraid she would drop it.

“No, she lied because she didn’t want to upset the family she was building. Your father told her this would happen.”

“But,” she began, and then shook her head, reminding herself that this was all a dream. “Alright, so why are you helping my father?”

“Two reasons. Because he’s served under my watch all his years, and because I need your help,” admitted the old soldier.

“My help?” Riley squeaked.

“I’ll be blunt, because there’s only so much time to do what must be done,” he told her. “I need you to go to Eden, and retrieve two of the Apples of Life Eternal for me.”

“What?” Riley said, incredulous. “Eden? Apples? You’ve got a gun and a sword! I just started kickboxing!”

The general smirked, and shook his head. “I can’t go. I’m forbidden to go by God above, but I need those apples. A bite from one will heal your mother, and that’s the payment I’m offering you. An Apple of Life.”

Riley’s thought process stopped for a moment, and she mulled the words “heal your mother” in her head. “You want me to go by myself?” she asked.

A shake of the head. “No, friends of your father will be waiting for you along the way. They’ll guide you to Eden, and bring you back,” he told her, and then stood up, belting his sword on and pointing off in the distance, where the waves crashed on a far shore. “There is one right there,” he told her, and when she looked from Saint Michael back to the far shore, a path of the same cobble stones had appeared.

“Good luck,” the archangel told her, standing at parade rest and blocking off the way back to the pavillion. Mustering her courage, Riley went forward.

~

She walked for only several minutes, yet when she looked back the pavillion was far behind her and the beach was much closer than it had seemed. And there was indeed something waiting for her there. A large mass, sprawled out across the sand. As she got closer, she realised what she was looking at, but didn’t believe it could be real, even as her feet touched the warm surf pushing up on the sand. There was a man there, a shotgun between his outstretched legs, a thin sword against one leg. He was wearing tattered clothing, and would have been a curiousity with the ugly stitching around his neck and the one withered wing twitching from a shoulder blade.

The slender dragon statue that he laid against, done in shades of palest green on the bottom and darkest blue on top, commanded attention though. It was long and lean, its muzzle coming to almost a beak, while its wings were massive. If it moved, she imagined it was built for speed and skill, but the long killing talons on the end of each huge claw spoke of elegant butchery. She would have thought they were both statues until the man lowered his head from where it was resting against the crook of the dragon’s arm.

“Pas, look. He wasn’t kidding,” said the man with a cynical twist to his voice. The “statue”‘s eyes opened, and it lifted its serpentine neck to gaze at her.

“Seems so, Shade,” rumbled the dragon.

“Friends of my father?” she asked, her toes digging into the wet sand. There was a hard moment where the two seemed to stare through her, and then they smiled, the dragon’s smile more open than the man’s.

“Aye, that’s us,” said the man, standing up and brushing sand off his trousers. “Grey, formerly Sergeant in the Third Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Force,” he told her matter of fact, offering his hand to shake.

“Riley…Sixth Grader, in Taylor Prepatory School,” she replied. The man and the dragon chuckled at this.

“Pasthandulus. Or Pas for short. Crown Prince of the Summerlands. Charmed,” he told her, offering one talon daintly into her hand.

“Are we flying to Eden?” she asked, taking the surreal setting at face value and not questioning what was going on.

“As much as I’d like to, I can’t, child,” Pas told her. “The Scourge laid a geas on you, and there are ways of doing these things that are just so.”

“I never met anyone called the Scourge,” Riley admitted, confused.

“It is my people’s name for Saint Michael. We call him that for when he scourged us from Earth into the Summerlands,” Pas said, his voice carefully controlled.

“Don’t worry,” said Grey, tactfully changing the subject, “We can help you though,” he told her, kneeling down to her level. The scars and stitches looked even more garish up close, his wounds like old meat on a chopping block.

“You’re on the shores of dreaming, heading towards Eden. Along the way, you’re going to meet some other friends that your pop knew. They will guide you to Eden, but only you can enter and take the apples,” he told her. “Got that?”

She nodded, meeting his eyes that were same color as his namesake, and then drifted down to the badly repaired skin around his neck.

“Artillery piece,” he explained with no emotion, “caught me at the wrong time. Better for me though,” he said with a wink. He drew his sword with a flourish, shouldering the shotgun. The thin blade seemed to glow from within, and she noticed he wore a knife with spiked knuckles on the hilt opposite to the sword.

“Follow the moon. You’ve got to cross a sea, but don’t let appearances deceive you, Riley – you’re among friends,” he told her, and then pointed down a sandy path.

“Oh wait Grey,” said the dragon. “She doesn’t have shoes, the dear,” he murmured, and then spoke a word and a pair of sandals appeared at the end of his talon. “Here, please,” the dragon told her, and gave a chortle of delight as she strapped them on. “Perfect fit. Go on child, go and save your mother.”

Riley looked over her shoulder as she walked down the path, waving at the man and the dragon as they watched her go. They waved back, and then dissapeared as she walked behind a low dune.

After some time she came to another body of water, but this one had a pier extending out into it. She saw no sign of any dragons or undead soldiers, and so she walked out onto the pier, looking for something, anything to guide her.

“R’ungalo wai ‘time!”

Riley jumped, and saw an outrigger canoe coming towards her, piloted by a tall,  lean but pretty woman, wearing a tunic that she belted at the waist with a seashell clasp. Long brown hair was tied back with a piece of greenery, and a thin blade made of glass was at her waist. Bounding out of the water behind her was a large dolphin, making the high pitched squeaks the species was known for.

“What?” Riley asked.

“Its a greeting,” said the woman as she pulled up along side the dock, looping a shank of rope around the piers with ease and leaping onto the wooden planks, “But I don’t believe you’re hearing Great Islander, right now, are you?”

“No, it sounds like English to me,” admitted the girl. The woman smiled at that. She made a gesture, slapping the back of one hand into her palm. “I’m Ki, formerly of the Great Islands, now with the Rairiku. And this is Cipher,” she said, nodding at the dolphin.

A pleasure. The voice echoed in Riley’s head, shocking her. “The dolphin talks?” she asked herself, and considering what she had been through, it seemed to be the least of her concerns. “The dolphin talks,” she admitted. Ki watched her, bemused, and stepped around to place a weathered hand in the small of her back.

“Come along, we’ve some leagues to cover and not much time to do it in,” Ki informed her, guiding Riley into the canoe and indicating for her to take a seat. “Luckily we have the Beloved to give us speed.”

“Who?” asked Riley as Ki unhitched the boat, tossing it to Cipher who began to pull the outrigger away from the pier and into the deeps.

“Over there,” Ki pointed at a series of dorsal fins that were cutting the water in the distance, barely visible by the moonlight. “Ah, Ravagers,” she observed, and flashed a small grin at Riley. “You should be honoured. They sent their crusaders.”

Riley leaned up in the canoe. A child of the Pacific, she could recognize what a dolpin fin looked like, and these were not those. “Those are sharks,” she said, a little breathless. “Do they talk too?”

“Aye. Most are taciturn, only the Voices, Memory, and Celerity seem to enjoy conversation for conversation’s sake,” admitted Ki, who tossed three more ropes into the water. The great fish swam along the canoe for a second, the stripes on their backs visible to Riley before they took the loops into their mouth and added their effort to the lone dolphin’s. Soon the canoe skipped over the waves.

“What kind of man was my father to have friends like you?” murmured Riley. Ki’s eyes cut over at the girl, and she shook her head.

“Hush child. There are dangers in these waters. The Rairiku didn’t send warriors simply for show,” said Ki with an edge to her voice, and she picked up a speargun like contraption and mounted the prow, looking into the deeps. Chastened, Riley was quiet until the canoe was flung up on another beach, this one the beginnings of a desert it seemed.

“We’ll meet again, I’m sure,” said Ki, any sign of her former annoyance gone. “Follow the Dog Star, behind the Hunter,” the storyteller told her, pointing out Sirius and Orion respectively in the night sky. “They’ll guide you to where you need to be.”

“I’m to cross that alone?” Riley asked, incongreous.  Ki nodded.

“Aye. To save your mother, none the less. Would it stop you if it was a desert of obsidian shards?” she asked. Riley paused for a moment, and then shook her head.

“That’s a girl. Go on then. Mind the mouth on the next one, he fancies himself clever,” she said in way of goodbye, before pushing the canoe back into the water and leaving Riley alone.

She looked up at the shining star, and began to walk.

~

Later, much later it seemed, with her tongue thick in her mouth, she thought she was lost. A sandstorm had kicked up around her shortly after entering the desert, and now she didn’t know where she was going, only walking. Something was tracking her, appearing out of the corner of her eye and then vanishing when she turned to look at it. She saw it again, and didn’t turn to look at it. It stayed there, not moving, and then there was a blackness rushing at her. The last thing she heard before she passed out was a mingled scream – her’s and something else’s.

She awoke to the smell of tea and something floral drifting around her, and there was a dull throbbing in the back of her head and her tongue seemed too big for her mouth. She had been resting on pillows it, and she looked up through bleary eyes to see a thin, weird looking man sitting lotus style across from her. He wore a scarf of some sort along his lower face, along with a sleeveless tunic tucked into loose trousers. A pair of black gloves rode up to his elbows, and knee high boots covered his feet, both made of the same black leather. There was no hair on his head, and his ears were pointed, and the violet eyes that looked over here were unsettling.

“Tea for our guest,” he said over his shoulder, and there was a clanking as a metallic scorpion the size of a banquet platter clambered into the room, a tea service balanced on its broad back. Riley looked around at the room, where geometric tapestries hung on the walls, along with sparkling fabrics and torches that burned green and blue.

“Where am I?” Riley asked, shaken.

“A place of safety and compassion,” said the man, if he was that, who rose smoothly to his feet touching heart, lips, and forehead. “Well, safety at the least. Welcome to my burrow. I am Malik Last Laughter, and I’m going to have a bone to pick with that beast that jumped you in the desert,” he said.

There was a sharp snap next to her, and she looked down to see the scorpion holding a tea cup above it. She got the feeling it was impatient for her to take it, and she unconciously gave it a thank you that seemed to mollify it. “I thought that was you,” she admitted, taking a sip of the tea. It was very strong, but very sweet, and eased the ache in her throat.

“No, not I. I had received word of your coming, but the storm kicked up your tracks. The shadow creature’s were much easier to find. So I let him guide me to you,” Malik admitted.

“And what if you had been too late?” she asked.

“You might as well ask what would happen if the sun did not rise,” riposted Malik. “You should be more worried why a beast of the Black Courts was stalking you, child, not if I was going to fail, which I would not.”

“Humble, aren’t you?” Riley noted, feeling strength surge back into her limbs and remembering Ki’s advice.

“Ha! Indeed, and handsome as well,” Malik told her before a pounding from above stopped them both. Reaching behind where he had sat, Malik withdrew a scimitar and belted it around his waist. “Ah, its just your guide for the last bit,” the man said, reaching for a gem dusted cloak and pulling it around him.

“The last bit?” Riley asked, draining her tea and putting it back on the scorpion, who tottered off.

“Yes, and then Eden, Garden of Delights,” Malik said dryly, offering her his hand. She took it, and the fingers inside gripped hers with surprising strength. “Come, come. Our friend doesn’t appreciate waiting.”

“Our friend? Who now? This dream is insane,” Riley admitted. Malik turned suddenly and help up a finger.

“It is a dream but it is not. Remember that. Anything is possible here. Your death. Your failure. But your success as well. Just because things have gone easily for you so far does not mean that this will end well,” he said before spinning around and walking up the stairs, pushing open the doors to the desert night.

Riley might have had something else to say if the man and his mount waiting for her were not so strange. Clad in black armor that glowing lines ran through occasionaly, he seemed out of place near the ancient tomb. His helmet was a featureless black visor that covered his face, and the hilt of a sword poked over one shoulder. “This the girl?” he asked, his voice mechanized.

From behind him, a feathered dinosaur walked closer. It looked like the velociraptors from Jurrasic Park, but much larger, with a long tail that ended in a flare of brightly coloured feathers. Armor formed a helmet and covered vital spots, and it had been mounted with a saddle of some sort. “Don’t be foolish Clay,” said a woman’s voice from where the raptor was standing, “who else is it going to be?”

Clay snorted, and looked at Malik. “We’ll take it from here,” he said gruffly, and then looked at Riley. “Come with us, we need to hurry,” he told her, indicating the moon that had sunk low in the sky.

“Will she be able to carry two?” Malik inquired of Clay. “I mean, your friend does look tired and I would worry…” Malik began, only to leap back as the raptor’s jaws came down here he had been standing with a snap.

“Pray your sword is a sharp as your wit, faerie,” said the dinosaur cooly.

“What a weapon that would be,” murmured Malik dreamily, and then sketched a bow. “No offense, Alema. You know my concern,” he said before pulling the doors shut behind him.

“What was that?” Riley murmured as Clay helped her into the saddle.

“An old game,” Clay admitted as he mounted Alema, who turned and began to lope in the direction of Sirius.

“A game for him, perhaps, until the day he trips and becomes a meal,” Alema said, moving quicker than Riley had thought possible with the heavy man on her back.

“Clay?” Riley asked, thinking of what Malik had said.

“Mmm?”

“Is Eden dangerous?”

“Never been. But its been around for a while, and I’d imagine there are some things God put there that he didn’t want running around,” Clay said.

Riley swallowed, and then thought of Ki’s comment about obsidian glass.

“Did you know my father?” she asked shortly afterwards.

Clay was silent for a moment, and then gave a short nod. “We’re both soldiers. Its a favor I do him,” Clay told her.

“So what was he like?” she said, curious. “You’re the first person to even admit knowing him outside of saying you were his friend.”

“Sad. He’s been very sad for quite a while a now,” Clay told her.

“Sad over what? Where is he?”

“Life, I’d reckon. Look up ‘soldier’s heart’ sometime. Its not as bad as Disaffection, but its bad enough,” said the Reaper. “Besides, its not like you’re going to see him.”

“Is he dead? Was my mom right?”

A harsh laugh at that from Clay. Alema spoke up. “He’s not dead. Speaking of your mother, ask her about the events that brought you into this world, and then wonder no longer why he is sad. But after you give her the apple, mind. Your generosity might take a hit after you hear the whole thing.”

Riley frowned. “Why? What happened?”

The raptor seemed to quicken, and there was a faint hint of greenery in the way the air smelled. “Tell her you know about Yuma, and that you want the truth,” she said, “No more time for questions though. We’re here.” Alema pulled up short on a stone bridge surrounded by water. It pointed to an oasis of sorts, barely visibly from where she was standing. Clay dismounted, and boosted Riley off of Alema before remounting.

“There’s your goal. We’ll be waiting here,” Clay told her.

“Can’t you come?” asked Riley. The duo shook their head.

“This is your story, human,” chided Alema. “Go and finish the tale.”

They watched her as she turned, and began the walk down the stone bridge. Looking over the railing into the water, it seemed things swam in those shadowed depths, and so she looked straight ahead and continued to walk. Eden loomed closer, an oasis of lush palms and dense bushes spreading out before her. She approached the threshold, and felt something looming over her, and the smell of a woodfire before the sensation passed as suddenly as it came. Shrugging it off, she entered the Garden.

There was no problem figuring out what she was looking for: The tree was in the center of the oasis, boughs heavy with apples that glittered in the sun. Approaching carefully, Riley looked around at the silent clearing, nothing moving as she hefted one apple in her hand and picked it from the tree. She grabbed another, and it came free just as easily.

“Why do you take the apples?” asked a sibilant voice.

Riley gave a little gasp, almost dropping them, and saw a serpent curl from between the branches. Black and sleek with large green eyes, it watched her carefully.

“Because I was told to,” she said carefully, not sure what to make of this latest development.

“Because you were told to? And you always do what you’re told to?” it asked her, cocking its head.

“Not always, but this is going to help my mother, I was told.”

“Ah,” murmured the snake, “Is that what Michael said? Enlisting another child to do his bidding.”

“Another child?” Riley asked, curious.

“The apples are poison to angels as long they are in the garden. Take them out and they’re tools of power, ready to be forged into weapons,” the snake told her, moving closer without seeming to.

“Apples as weapons? That doesn’t make any sense,” Riley said, confused as the snake slid to the ground, rising  back and flaring its hood to be eye level with her.

“Its the power they hold that he wants, to make weapons. An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but its far too late for what’s consuming your mother,” the snake said, bobbing back and forth. “You said it yourself: ‘Why would I believe?’ Do you really think a dream is going to help your dying mother?” the tempter asked, voice low and hypnotizing.

“But..my father,” murmured Riley, sleepy now, suddenly sleepy, and feeling her grip on the apples loosen. It was so hard to keep her eyes open, and was the snake opening its mouth? The snake moved closer.

Then there was the sound of a scythe cutting through wheat, breaking the spell. The snake roared, its voice distorting as it cried out and its form began to twist, the flesh beneath the scales bulging horribly as terrible clawlike growths began to emerge from the body. “Again Reaper?! May you be cast down!” the thing cried as it grew and changed.

Riley ran, not looking over her shoulder as one monstrous roar was joined in turn by several others, and the ground began to shake as whatever it was began to chase her. Finally as her feet his stone she dared to look over her shoulder, and saw a glimpse of something draconic, feline, and crustacean bearing down on her, too horrible to look at. She would have stumbled if a strong hand didn’t grip her and stand her up, the figure putting himself between Riley and the monster.

“Remember me?” Grey called up to the abomination, racking his shotgun as he did so. Riley finally took in what had chased her, and almost fainted. A body easily the size of a house covered with sickly patches of fur and scales was supported by six horrible limbs, human, catlike, and some sort of squid. Fleshy pods hung under the body, as well as gasping orifices and fleshy pylons that took her a moment to recognize as crude female and male gentials. Seven vehicle sized heads, made of leonid, human, serpentine, and some sort of spawn’s features were thrown together randomly, no one alike as the other. Ghostly crowns floated above each head, and all seven pairs of eyes bore down on the pair.  Riley flinched from the gaze, while wondering how Grey could stand stoic and even seemed furious.

One head on a long neck bent down to sniff. “You have the Upstart’s smell on you, talking ape. We remember you. The Worldborer, destroyed. The plans for the Messiah, ruined when you summoned heroes from the Elysian Fields to fight,” it said, and venom dripped from wildly serrated fangs, the human mouth and face disfigured by cat eyes and a patch of scaled running over it.  “Yes, We have not forgotten, and We have joy to know We may come to terms with you as well as obtain Eden’s bounty.” A tongue that was shaped like a human being screamed as it was run over bony lips.

“Big words for something that’s zero and 2 when it stepped up to me. Zero and 3 if you include Saint Mike in there,” Grey said, bringing the shotgun to his shoulder.

 The heads reared back at this, and one that had long female hair and eyes and a crabs mouth leaned forward. “You have no army in your pocket now, ghost. You are simply a lost soul defending a deluded girl,” it crooned.

“Lost I may be, but an army of one is still an army,” Grey retorted, then fired the shotgun. Riley screamed as the world turned to white light and the gun roared (were there chimes and was someone screaming Holy holy holy?) and the monster in front of them bellowed as the neck that had once held the head flailed wildly, black bile geysering from it. “Close to me now child!” Grey said, grabbing his shadow and yanking it over them, the blood splashing around them. Grey grunted as some of it fell on his covering, staggering to one knee. The other six heads snarled as they recovered.

“OH HOW YOU SHALL PAY!” the Beast whined and cried in unison as it advanced on the two figures.

“Talon! Talon and Blade! Terra! Forever TERRA!” boomed a voice, and there was a horrendous screech as Clay and Alema entered the fray, dropping the mirror cloak that had concealed them. Clay launched off Alema’s back, while the raptor turned and rushed over to where Grey and Riley were. The Reaver drew his sword as he flew through the air. The unremarkable chunk of metal flowed as it became a recurved, jagged thing that Clay drove into the side of the Beast and used to brace himself against the flank. He worked quickly to carve a hole, and shoved something into the gaping wound before leaping clear of the monster. Tentacles, a hand, and a claw slapped at him, and his sword lashed out at them, driving them back. There was a muffled explosion, and the Beast staggered, weakened as the grenades ripped through the innards of the monster.

“Quickly now, little time to spare,” said an accented voice, and she turned to see Malik rushing towards them as Alema came up, casting a worried glance over at where Clay battled alone. “Will you be alright?” he asked Grey, who seemed to be recovering.

The soldier stood up, and nodded. “Yeah, whatever connection I have is overpowering that blood,” he told them. Alema snapped.

“Enough with this. Clay is a Reaver, not a god, and that is what he fights. For your sakes, he better survive this,” said the raptor, furious. “On my back girl, we have little time. This was talked about, but not expected.” Malik bit his tongue, helping Riley into the saddle. Alema’s gaze flickered, and she stared. Other eyes followed, and looked at the wall of shadow that blocked off the path.

“Your work, Shade?” asked Alema, dangerously cool.

“No, that’s not pure shadow,” admitted Grey, drawing his epee, which burned with an eager light. Malik held up a hand.

“No, that’s the Dark,” he said, and his entire demeanor changed from sly and slinking to commanding, and it seemed to Riley as if he was keeping a tight reign on his anger.

“Who dares?” he asked, his voice cracking like a whip.

“We were called from the Dark, fae, to do work. We only do as we were bid,” it hissed, soft as leaves against velvet.

“You interfere. The Beast involves itself in matters of Dream. This is not the High War,” Malik snapped.

“All the same, our contract states,” it began.

“Your contract? I am a Consul of the Black Courts!” Malik snarled. “I have sworn pacts of friendship with the Wolf Who Shall Eat the Sun,” he hissed, and the moonlight grew dim at the name. “You dare raise your hand to me and mine? Our contracts come before those of some demon!”

The wall shivered before it responded. “Bey, we did not realise…”

“Of course you didn’t realise, hungry for promises. My anger will be nothing to the Court’s. To know Bound Contracts were broken in the name of…”

“Sultan, we wish to make amends for our foolishness,” a reverent pleading.

“Yes, that is well,” said Malik, calm again while Riley watched Grey and Alema join the battle to aid a struggling Clay. “Our enemy needs to be dispatched. Serve us in this and we will be magnamonius,” said the changeling.

“Khalif we serve,” moaned the wall as it took on several powerful new forms, apelike and hulking except for the beastial, wolflike heads and talons on the end of each claw. The quad loped through the two, Darkness unleashed as it leapt on the Beast and began to pummel it viciously.

Malik tossed his cloak over one shoulder, a gloved hand on his scimitar. “They underestimated me at thier peril,” he said, and then turned as Alema struggled with Clay, shifting her weight to throw him off balance.

“Let me go back, Alema! He’s weak! I’ll kill it! I’ll burn that monster! What is he? A collection of parts! I’ve fought worst, killed deadlier things! He is nothing! NOTHING!” Clay roared, raising his mask to spit towards the Beast. Alema threw her weight and slammed him to the ground, driving a claw onto his chest and pinning him.

“Did he go insane?” asked Riley, looking at the soldier who lashed wildly and tried to buck the raptor off of him.

“Yes, with rage. Any other time I’d let him go, because its what he’s been trained to do. But there is no training for that thing,” she told Riley as she kept her balance on top of the man. Even though his sword was in reach, Clay made no move to hurt her, simply trying to push her off of him.

“Well, you might have to,” murmured Malik as the last of the midnight beasts were crushed under a massive human foot. Roaring, the Beast turned to the group.

“NOW COMES THE TIME OF RECKONING. NOW COMES THE PAIN WITHOUT END,” it cried in unison, voices warping and distorting on every syllable in joy. Before it could step forward, it screamed horribly, causing Riley to clap her hands over her ears.

“Ah, the cavalry. There’s a girl,” said Grey.

The scream was caused by a barbed harpoon sinking itself into the back of the monster, the treated rope growing taut as the whale shark it was attached to began to pull, trying to drag it into the water. Warriors in chitinous armor manned the launchers on the backs of the Voices, flashes of gold on their blue armor as they moved quickly to reload and launch another harpoon into their foe. Two more Voices arrived, and their harpoons plunged deep into unholy flesh as well, and they added their strength.

The water teamed with sharks, from tiger striped Ravagers to the dully coloured Seekers, who could swim up rivers. The Memory was there in force, oblong heads breaching the water from time to time. Guardians churned the water, their great dorsal fins easily visible, the largest of all the sharks their with their white underbellies showing from time to time. Warriors rode on some sharks, but most were on great ocean going canoes, bristling with weaponry.

“Ki brought the entire Slew of Eastern Liberation,” murmured Malik, as the Beast fought a desperate battle to avoid being dragged into the water, where the sharks and their Rairiku allies would finish the job. Without warning, the sacs that hung under the Adversary’s war form burst, disgorging twisted replicas of the Beast on a smaller scale. Wet with afterbirth, they stood up shakily before snuffing the air with the single deformed head each of them had, stalking over towards where the group recovered.

“I think you should let him up now,” said Riley. Alema snapped her head at the girl, but did so, removing the claw from Clay’s chest. Instantly, Riley gasped as an overpowering wave of emotions (HateSorrowRageFear) washed over her, causing Malik to reach out to steady her.

“Let’s go Alema, I’m going to ruin every last one of those things,” he snarled, trying to mount the raptor who pulled away from him.

“No, I need to get the girl to safety. Stay here and fight,” she told the Reaver.

“Why? He killed you. He killed you and you want to save his daughter!” screamed Clay. Malik moved to interpose him between the two and Riley, his cloak not quite blocking out what followed.

Alema head butted Clay, and the two were forehead to forehead for a moment, with Clay reaching up to touch Alema’s skull. “He killed you,” he said in a tired, burnt out voice, sounding almost like a scared boy.

“He brought me back, Clay. He brought me back and I won’t let the dream die because of your fear. I’m always with you, we’re always together. Do what you do best – kill these things. I won’t worry with you watching my back. I never worry,” Alema said, her voice soft for once. Grey looked away, eyes watching the approaching six monsters warily, his epee’s light growing brighter as the spawn got closer.

“Ya’ll…I can’t hold it back much longer,” said Grey, the withered wing on his back stretching out and beginning to grow. He cried out as a second wing broke out of his back and began to grow as well. “It wants to fight, and I don’t know what’ll happen here.”

“Clay, what were you trained to do? What is your purpose, FOSsil?” she asked him, unheeding of the Shade’s words.

“I Reave,” Clay murmured, grasping the armored head.

“Go Reave them,” Alema said in benediction, and Clay’s emotional torrent became a focused channel, the creatures approaching them stopping for a minute, suddenly uncertain. The dreamblade  began to flow, and became a solid blade with a heavy edge that came to a tapered point, like a cleaver with a tip.  He planted his feet and made a few passes with the blade as Grey and Malik looked at each other and nodded, taking positions on either side and readying their own weapons.

“Take the girl and go. We’ll hold the line here,” Clay said, and Riley needed little promption to climb up into the saddle. Alema gave one last cry and began to sprint away from the battle. Riley looked over her shoulder as the two sides came together.

“Rock of the Marne,” spit Grey as he drew the battered trench knife from his belt. The last she saw of the three men was a whirling melee of blades. Malik’s cloak flashing as he misdirected while striking precisely with his scimitar, Grey’s odd combination of swordsmanship and brawling, and Clay’s ferocious assault.

“Will they win?” asked Riley as she grabbed onto the grips designed for much larger hands.

“The sun will rise in the West on our beloved Home before Clay fails,” Alema told her.

“And what did he mean that my father killed you?” she asked the raptor.

“That does not concern you, child. Be fortunate you have three warriors willing to lay down their lives for you,” Alema snapped. Riley wrinkled her nose at the raptor’s tone, and took one more look over her shoulder. The good news was that the Beast was being dragged into the water, the front two claws scrabbling for purchase. The bad news was that three of the hunters had simply avoided the battle and now were chasing them. She could see the men running after them, but they would never catch up.

“Alema! They made it through!” she said, tucking the apples into the pockets of her pajamas as she held on tighter, “They’re going to catch us!”

Alema made a sharp barking sound, which Riley realised after a moment was a laugh. There was a series of small clicks on the armor that guarded the raptor’s hips, and small thrusters protruded backwards before activating with a whine. “I will show you speed. Hold on!” she cried, and Riley dug her body into the saddle as Alema’s posture stiffened from the tip of her muzzle to her tail’s end. The wind whipped her long hair around her face as Alema rushed forward. Still, the monsters continued to close the distance. Riley thought she heard Alema say “Ah, cousin,” before a shadow rushed over them and the long lean form of the dragon that had given her the sandals swooped down. Falconlike, it caught two in its claws before mangling them as it banked its dive.

With a suddeness that took the breath out of her, Alema spun and began to rush towards the final foe. “I run from no enemy!” she bellowed, and Riley’s stomach sank as she realised what was coming next. Letting loose a war cry at the surprised spawn, Alema was a bladed nightmare, pouncing and sinking her talons to sever the spine while her jaws ripped the malformed head from its body with a meaty tearing sound that made Riley taste bile in the back of her throat.

There was a final shudder, and the thing went limp under them. Eyes kept closed, Riley said softly “I see where Clay gets his temper from.”

Alema’s response was another barking laugh. “The bond works both ways,” she said as she trotted the last leg of the journey, where the road began to trail away into the sky.

Riley dismounted, and looked back at the armoured dinosaur. “Would you  tell them thank you for what they did? And thank you for carrying me here,” she said, feeling for the apples in her pockets.

Alema nodded graciously. “It was a small thing, but you’re welcome.”

Riley hesistated, and then rushed out the next part. “And tell my father when you see him to come and see me sometime and that I am sorry we haven’t met yet.”

The raptor seemed taken aback for a second, and the edges of her mouth twitched upward ever so slightly. “I think we can manage that, but I would think he wouldn’t want you to be sorry for anything,” she said in the gentlest voice Riley had heard her direct towards her. Turning, Riley cried out one last time.

“Will I see you all again?” she shouted.

“Anything is possible!” retorted Alema, who flicked her tail to say goodbye as she trotted back to where her Bonded waited for her, watching the defeat of the Beast at the jaws of the Beloved with the fae and the shade.

Riley turned and began walking up the pathway, seeing the pavillion where she had begun her journey shortly after she began. Waiting for her there was the archangel, who greeted her as she approached.

“Child, I’ve heard you had quite an adventure,” he said. “I didn’t know you would be sent against…that.”

Riley snorted. “I have your apples,” she told Saint Michael, “And why weren’t you there fighting?”

“I wish I could have been. Here its mutually assured destruction,” he told her without heat, eyes focused on the apples as they rolled onto the table. “I attack hm, and the whole of Hell pours out to respond, and then the whole of Heaven comes to my banner. No, I will prevent Gabriel from blowing his horn as long as I can,”

This seemed to mollify Riley, who watched as Saint Michael drew his sword, which glowed softly. Looking at the blade, she thought the light seemed familiar, and then wondered at the chimes she heard as she looked at it. More ominous, she swore she could see a mushroom cloud and nuclear fire in the corona of light surrounding the weapon.

“Four pieces,” he told her, tossing the apple into the air and whipping the blade around. Cupping his hand, he caught the apple, which blossomed open. “One for your mother, and the other three for whomeever. Think wisely on who you give them to. Long life and health and the blessings of Heaven are the gifts you give out with each slice,” he told her, placing them into her own small hands.

“And now, one more thing,” he told her.

“Yes?”

“Wake up.”

Riley sat up in her bed, looking around at the moonlit bedroom. She touched herself all over, and grabbed at her pockets, feeling for the slices of the apple that would save her mother…  Before she realised it was a dream, and there was no apple. No father. No talking armoured raptors or polite dragons. Ghosts with shotguns, cloaked elves, or insane soldiers. She stifled the cry in her chest, and grunted with the effort of trying to kick off her sandals…

She didn’t wear sandals to bed.

Riley ripped off her covers, to reveal the relatively new sandals that covered her feet, looking at them uncomprehending for a moment. The dream was real.

She looked over at the figurine that had started things, and saw the sliced apple there, still partially blossomed from that wonderous sword. Riley took one of the quarters, and began to walk towards her mother’s room. She stopped suddenly, turned and went to pray first, kneeling next to her bed and thanking God and Saint Michael for what had happened.  Then she went to go heal her mother.

~

Riley’s mother returned to health shortly after eating the apple. It was a miracle, said the doctors. Only Riley knew how true it was. She ate a slice of the apple as well – it tasted like nothing she could imagine. If joy had a taste, she thought afterwards. She began to go to church, and kept the other two slices. She didn’t know who the one was going to, but she knew one day she would meet her father, and she would have something for him. For Riley had taken Clay’s advice, and had asked her mother about Yuma, only answering “A friend of my father” when her mother demanded to know who had told her about that.

On the edge of falling asleep one night, when she then had a vivid dream she would have trouble remembering the entirity of, she saw the silhouettes of four figures during sunset, waiting for her on a bridge. One was mounted, another cloaked. One’s long hair blew in the wind, and the other’s shotgun resting over a shoulder.  They were calling out to a fifth figure who walked towards the bridge. In the dying light, she could make out the features on his face that closely resembled hers, and shouted a name in joy before running to meet him.

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Paratrooper. Correctional Officer. Federal Agent. Hello world, these are my thoughts and this is my story.

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