“You cannot stay!” a Higher Angel bellowed. “You must pay for your sin! OUT!”
Sovereign energy blasted at him and he felt the finality of the command. The realization of what it meant swept through him: Fallen Angels were no longer Angels at all.
“Please, no,” he implored. “I cannot be a demon. Please don’t send me to Satan. I beg of you!”
The energy surrounding him slowed and quieted as the anger dissipated once again. Whispers filled the space as the Higher Angels considered his plea, discussing among themselves. He felt a sense of excitement pass through them, as if an answer they’d been seeking had finally come. He dared to hope this meant they would save him.
“No, you are not of demon essence,” the main speaker finally said. “Your sin is love—not hate, not pride, not greed or worse. You are not cursed to the demon world.”
Andrew’s energy relaxed. But only for a moment. The Higher Angels had not finished.
“You are sentenced to live in the physical realm.”
Immediately he felt the pull. His spirit was jerked out of the Heavens and back through the Otherworld, toward the Earthly realm. He took physical form again, solidifying as he neared the veil. His soul felt split in two. He wanted to be in Zoe’s physical world, but not at this price. Never at the cost of losing his wings. His power. His ability to defend her. Who would protect Zoe’s soul if he could not?
As he crossed the veil, he heard the Angels’ final words.
“For two hundred human years, Andrew, you will live as a man.”
Two hundred years. As a man. The words echoed in his physical mind as he fell into the human world. And into complete darkness.
200 Years Later
Cassandra picked her way through the sea of broken and battered bodies, the blood-soaked grass squishing under her sandals. She tried to ignore the warm wetness seeping between her toes as she searched for signs of life. She doubted she would find any. This skirmish had been short and vicious, the number of soldiers on either side not nearly as large as other battlefields she’d come upon—the Romans, Greeks and Macedonians had been fighting for as long as she could remember. She hadn’t seen any nearby camps in recent days and assumed these two groups had surprised each other while en route to joining their legions.
She’d heard the fighting while gathering berries this morning and waited several hours for it to end, listening—she could never watch the viciousness—with a knotted stomach as the last few surrendered. She then waited more hours for the field to clear as the survivors took their injured comrades with them and left the rest for dead. But she knew from experience there may be a few she could still help and so, even as twilight approached, she searched.
To her right, one soldier’s chest barely lifted and fell and she quickly knelt by his side. His head and unlined face were covered with dark hair and beard, both streaked with crimson, which pooled under his temple. His eyes remained closed. When she lifted his hand by the wrist, he didn’t stir. His heartbeat came slow and faint under her fingers and her shoulders sagged with grief. He’d be dead in a matter of minutes, too far gone for her to heal. With tears stinging her brown eyes, she stood and continued searching.
She wound her way across the battlefield, her heart sinking further with each body she passed. Occasionally she stopped to feel for a heartbeat or breath on her hand, but found none. Then, as she stepped over one dead man, another moved. Just barely—just a twitch of his finger. Cassandra hurried to his side. Please, God, let there be at least someone I can help.
He was young, barely more than a boy, with black hair and darkly tanned skin, as if he worked in the fields. When Cassandra’s eyes traveled over his body, her stomach clenched. The lower half twisted at such unnatural angles, it sickened even her, who’d seen the worst of injuries. She pulled a berry from the pouch hanging at her hip, squished it and slipped it into the young man’s mouth. It would help alleviate the pain until death took over.
With a heart that felt like a boulder in her chest, she reached the other side and turned to look out at the field. She swallowed the sob in her throat and scrubbed at her wet cheeks. She’d seen similar scenes over the years, but she never became used to all the carnage. She blew out a sigh heavy with grief and turned to head back to where she currently called home. As she stepped past the last body, only steps from entering the woods, a hand grabbed her ankle.
“Oh!” she cried out and fell to her knees next to a soldier covered in mud and blood. I almost missed him! He looked at her with half-closed eyes the color of green olives. He stirred, as if to sit up, but she held him down. “Don’t move. Let me see how badly you’re hurt first.”
“It’s just my leg,” he said, his voice rough. He pushed himself up onto an elbow, despite her protests. “And my throat. I’m so thirsty.”
She pulled a skin of water out of her pouch and handed it to him.
“What is your name?” she asked as she began assessing his condition.
Sweat mixed with dirt smudged his face, but it looked otherwise unscathed, except for a small scratch on his lip and a scrape across his chin. She pushed his dark brown hair back and found a lump on his head. She removed the protective forearm braces and found bruises covering his arms, but no open wounds. His legs had been protected with braces from ankle to knee. Gingerly, she pulled his chiton up just enough to reveal a deep gash in his lower thigh.
After draining the water skin dry, he finally answered. “Niko.”
“You’re very lucky, Niko,” she said, pulling out another skin of water to clean the wound. Then she retrieved a bundle of cut plants from her bag and spread them on her lap. She selected the ones she needed and tore the leaves, then pressed them into the wound. The soldier sucked his breath through clenched teeth. “You seem to be the only man alive here and with barely any injuries, at that.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it,” he said. “It’s all about skill. And I am quite skilled.”
She looked up at his face and her herbs seemed to be already working because he managed a confident grin, causing a patch of dried mud to crack around his eye. With a spare piece of cloth soaked with water, she began cleaning his face, trying to ignore how his eyes never left hers. Each swipe of the cloth revealed more of his true appearance and by the time she reached his full lips and square chin, her hand trembled and heat crept into her face. Hiding under the grime was the most handsome man she’d ever seen.
Her eyes dropped, skimming over his strong, warrior’s build and she blushed even harder. She was used to looking at soldiers’ bodies, assessing them for injuries, touching and prodding them. But now, for the first time, she saw more than a subject to heal. She saw someone who made her heart race and her stomach do odd little flips. And now she felt shy looking at him at all.
“Your hair,” he said, lifting his hand. She flinched and her fingers flew to the braids on the sides of her head. His hand fell. “It’s just … I’ve never seen such a beautiful color. Like a chestnut.”
She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. Then she hurriedly began gathering her supplies, unable to remain under his gaze any longer. What’s happening to me?
“I’d better be going,” she mumbled.
“Please, don’t,” Niko said, but then he sighed. “Forgive me. You probably have a husband to return to.”
She didn’t look up at him. She couldn’t stand for her stomach to flip anymore, an absurd reaction she didn’t understand. And she couldn’t deny his words, although she didn’t have a husband. She’d always admired the love her father and mother had shared, but never thought it possible for herself. According to her brother, most girls were married off by their fathers to men they’d never met. Father had no reason or desire to do that to her, though. He believed she would find the right man for herself when the time was right, just as Mother had found him. But she’d never even met a man properly—only those injured and dying on the battlefield, not exactly the appropriate time and place for romantic thoughts. So how could she possibly be having them now?
Niko’s assumption made sense, though. She appeared to be the age of a young wife who should be bearing children, but she was actually much, much older. Her explanation for not being married yet would make no sense to this stranger.
“Those herbs will heal the cut,” she said, evading his comment. “You’ll be fine by morning.”
He sat up all the way and she sucked in a breath. Maybe not. A bloodstain blossomed down the side of his torn tunic. He’d been lying on it, so she hadn’t seen it before.
“You’re bleeding,” she said.
He looked down and frowned. “I don’t feel anything.”
He gripped his chiton at the neck and tore it in half, letting the pieces drape over the belt at his waist. She inhaled sharply again. Not at the injury—a superficial scratch—but at his muscular chest and torso. Trying to ignore the pounding of her heart and the quivering in her belly, she cleaned the wound and smeared an herbal paste over it, his eyes on her again the entire time. A pleasant tingling ran through her fingertips and up her arm when she touched him, and when he sighed, not a sound of pain but of pleasure, she wondered if he felt it, too. By the time she finished, her hand trembled once again. Overwhelmed with these inexplicable feelings—why him?—she sprang to her feet to leave.
The sound of movement froze her in place. The sun had nearly set and she could barely see the shadows of two men as they approached the far side of the battlefield.
“Could be the Romans,” Niko whispered. He staggered to his feet and, in no condition to fight again, limped several paces into the dark woods, gesturing at Cassandra to follow.
They peered around a boulder and watched the men, who apparently hadn’t noticed them, as they slowly picked their way through the dead bodies, just as Cassandra had done. Not healers looking for signs of life, though, nor Roman soldiers. They must have been savages here to pillage the bodies.
They stopped at the man with the dark hair and beard who had barely been breathing. They crouched next to him and exchanged words too low for her to hear. Then one bent closer, held his hand over the dying man’s mouth and seemed to whisper into his ear. The soldier’s arms flailed and his body bucked, as if in pain.
Cassandra gasped. Niko clamped his hand over her mouth.
“They’re giving him a quicker death,” he whispered in her ear. “Putting him out of his misery.”
Before long, the soldier fell limp against the other man, who wiped the inside of his forearm across his mouth, then held it to the dead man’s lips. Cassandra peered at Niko, whose brows knitted together, looking just as perplexed as she felt. After several moments, the two men stood and found the only other person who’d shown any signs of life—the youth with the twisted body. This time the second man stooped down and pressed his mouth against the boy’s ear. Or was it his throat? Cassandra couldn’t discern in the darkness. The youth reacted the same way as the first. They repeated their unusual ritual, then the two men left the way they’d come, leaving any loot behind.
“I’ve never seen—” Cassandra started to say, but couldn’t put words to what they’d just witnessed. It was too strange.
“Perhaps it’s a local tradition to send the dead down the River Styx,” Niko said. “I’ve never seen it before. But, I’ve never been left at the field for dead, either.”
She looked up at him. “How could your comrades leave you anyway? They couldn’t have thought you dead.”
He shrugged. “I think I was unconscious, so perhaps they thought I was. I remember a blow to my head … and then you standing next to me. But my men will be back, very soon I’m sure. I’ll be fine until then. As much as I’d rather you not, you should probably go home, before darkness falls completely.”
Cassandra pursed her lips together, internally debating whether to leave him or not, then finally nodded. After giving Niko her last skins of water and receiving more assurances from him that he’d be fine, she hurried through the woods and across the fields in the twilight. She thought Father would be worried, but he was already asleep by the time she walked through the door of their hut. They had lived like nomads her entire life, always in the wilderness, sometimes in caves, sometimes in huts built by Father. He was a strong, vibrant man and usually didn’t turn in so early. He must have had a long day. He’s just tired. She refused to think it could be anything else.
She tended the fire to keep them warm for the night and ate the last of the morning’s bread with the berries she’d collected before she’d come upon the battlefield. She hoped Jordan, her brother, would return with supplies soon—they had enough grain and oil for only another day or two. She lay down in her bed of furs and stared at the fire without seeing it. Niko’s face filled her vision.
She worried about him in the woods by himself, injured. She told herself it was a minor injury and he was a soldier, that he could take care of himself. His men will find him. He’s fine. Stop thinking about him. She finally dozed off but slept fitfully. Dreams of wild animals and Roman soldiers attacking Niko haunted her sleep. She awoke before dawn and knew, before she even opened her eyes, she would go back to check on him.
Father still snored and she took advantage of the opportunity to sneak out and back to the battlefield. She followed the light of the full moon that still hung high in the sky, skirting the woods this time. The darkness within them frightened her. Animals would be on the hunt and from the sounds, not all were small creatures. The cracks of large branches breaking made her believe something in there was big enough to eat her. But she refused to turn back. Her concern for Niko outweighed her fear.
When she approached the tree she’d left him under, though, her heart sank. He was nowhere around. She took a few timid steps farther into the woods, peering into the darker areas where he might have found better shelter, but no sign of him existed at all. Not even blood or any indication of a struggle.
She blew out an exasperated breath. After hours of nightmares and little sleep, she’d worried for nothing. His comrades must have returned and taken him back to their camp. Relief that he was safe finally washed through her, followed by a twinge of disappointment. She’d been hoping, more than she’d realized, she’d see him again.
She looked out at the battlefield, expecting to find fewer bodies. If they’d come for Niko, surely they’d taken their dead, as well. But the shadows of the bodies in the pre-dawn darkness seemed to show the same scene she’d left last evening. Then they’ll be returning soon. Which meant she needed to leave.