“Nothing I do is working. He’s been sleeping, but fitfully, crying out every now and then. Mostly Mother’s name, but sometimes other things. But it’s all nonsense.”
Jordan removed his weapons and tossed them onto his bedding. He knelt on Father’s far side, across from his sister. “He must come around. He needs to explain—”
Cassandra was already shaking her head and Father, as if anticipating Jordan’s demand, silenced him.
“I … must … tell them,” Father croaked. “It is time.”
He fell silent again. Jordan exchanged looks with his sister, but she just shook her head. She brushed Father’s hair from his forehead, away from his closed eyes.
“Hush, Father. Do not—”
The old man’s eyelids sprang open and he glared at her with full alertness. “Yes. I must tell you. You need to know.”
He tried to rise, struggling to sit up. Jordan gathered more blankets and pelts and propped him up as much as possible. Father’s face looked haggard and his eyes pale and red-rimmed as they rested first on Jordan and then on Cassandra. He licked his cracked lips and closed his eyes. When he began, his voice suddenly came as clear and as strong as it always had.
“Your mother and I have told you the story of how we met,” he said. “How I remembered nothing of my life before. I’ve always said it was as though I’d never lived in this world until the moment I met her.” He opened his eyes and pierced them with his blue gaze. “Which, my dear children, is actually quite true.”
Jordan sat back on his heels as he listened to his father’s story, which felt so real and true the way he told it, but could not be possible. When Father was done, he closed his eyes again and sagged against the mound of blankets.
“I have told them. They know now,” he murmured, obviously no longer talking to them.
Cassandra looked at Jordan and he looked back at her with lifted brows.
“That’s it?” Jordan asked with incredulity. “All this time we’ve wanted to know what made us different from everyone else, and that’s his explanation?”
Jordan teetered on the edge of exploding. Cassandra shook her head violently. “Jordan, he’s very ill. He’s just delirious.”
“I would say so! What does he think we are? Children? Infants who believe in such nonsense?”
Her plea for him to calm down was cut off by a gasp from Father’s lips. He gripped their hands with unexpected strength.
“You … must … believe,” he said, desperation filling his voice.
“How are we supposed to believe such a story?” Jordan demanded. His own theories had never been this outlandish. He’d always believed both Father and Mother were human—perhaps descendants of something greater, but still human. But what Father just said …
Suddenly Jordan could see nothing around him. Cassandra, Father and the entire hut disappeared, his vision taken over by strange images that were not his own. He saw a white-winged Angel who looked just like his father battling a demon with thin, black membranes for wings and horns protruding from its head. He also saw their mother lying unconscious on the bank of a stream. Then Father defeated the demon and fell to their mother’s side. He watched it all play out, the same story Father had just told them. Then just as abruptly as it had disappeared, the hut returned.
“What was that?” Jordan demanded. “Cass, did you see that, too?”
She blinked at him, her face twisted in a mix of emotions—the same wonder, disbelief and confusion he felt. She nodded. They both looked at Father. The corners of his lips lifted in the slightest of smiles.
“Just one of my abilities. I had to share.” He rose from his bed then, too strong for even Jordan to restrain. He rose above them both, until his head touched the ceiling. Jordan’s jaw fell as he watched thin, black wings spread from Father’s back, reaching the walls on both sides yet still not fully extended while his body seemed to fade into a dark shadow. “It is time for me to go.”
Cassandra stared at Father, her mouth hanging open while bittersweet tears scalded her cheeks. She never thought she would lose him, convinced he would live forever after so many years as a strong and youthful man, but she knew he was about to leave her now. What would she do without him? Jordan liked his adventures too much to stay with her and she could never go with him—not that he’d even take her. She would be on her own now. How she would miss Father’s heavenly voice when he sang while they gathered fruits and olives, and their fireside conversations that could last for several nights. Her heart ached as sharp blades of grief and loneliness already stabbed it.
But at the same time, she could feel Father’s joy. He emanated a happiness she hadn’t felt in him since Mother died.
And he was so beautiful and glorious! Great white, feathered wings spread from his back, touching the walls, and his skin shone, bathed in a warm light. This is his true self. He’s going where he belongs. As much as Cassandra wanted to keep him for herself, she had to let him go.
“I love you, Father,” she whispered.
“I love you, too, my daughter,” he said and he looked at Jordan. “And I love you, my son. You have dark days ahead of you, but please remember that I always loved you and I always will.” Father fell silent and cocked his head. “It is time. Time for me to be with your mother.”
He reached out for their hands and Jordan recoiled but Cassandra grasped Father’s hand, feeling warmth and love travel through her arm. Father gave her a squeeze, closed his eyes and, as if murmuring to himself, said, “I am coming, Zoe.”
His wings beat the air twice and then he disappeared. Another vision filled Cassandra’s mind: Father and Mother walking along the seashore hand-in-hand, one of Father’s wings stretched protectively around Mother.
While Cassandra’s heart broke into pieces, her lips pulled into a smile. They’re together again.
A loud crash yanked her back to full awareness.
Her head jerked to the right. The water skin Jordan had been holding sat in the middle of the remains of a pottery bowl. She turned back to him, her mouth opening to question him but she snapped it shut. Her brother’s eyes flared and his mouth twisted with anger.
“He tells us that,” he spewed, “shows us … that … and then leaves?”
Cassandra stood and stepped closer to him. She reached for his hands, but he jerked them away. Her hands fell to her side. “He’s happy now, Jordan. He’s with Mother again. They’re in a better place.”
“A better place? Where do you think they are? Demons do not go to Heaven, little sister.”
Cassandra flinched as if he’d just slapped her. “Demons? What are you talking about?”
“A fallen Angel is a demon. Father himself taught us that and he was a fallen Angel.”
“You saw him just now. Black wings and horns on his head!”
Cassandra shook her head. “He fought the demon, Jordan. Father was the Angel.”
“And then he fell. You saw that, too, right? He fell from the Heavens. They cast him out.” Jordan clenched his teeth so hard, his jaw twitched. “And just now—as he rose like a demon in front of our eyes, with those thin, black wings and talons and horns … ”
Cassandra gasped. “No! Beautiful, white, feathered wings. He’s an Angel. He’s gone back!”
Jordan glared at her as if she were a fool who didn’t understand what was so obvious to him, which she really didn’t. Black wings? Talons and horns? What had Jordan seen?
He turned his back on her and crouched beside the fire. He stared at the low flames licking at the cypress wood, and his shoulders rose as he inhaled slowly, as if trying to calm a different fire—one she could feel burning inside him, just below the surface. She didn’t like him when he was like this. He’d always had a dark side the rest of her family did not and it scared her when it surfaced. When he spoke, however, he didn’t yell or curse at her. Rather, his voice came low and deliberate, which she found even more disturbing.
“He’s gone to Hell, Cassandra. Accept it. He was an Angel. He’s now a demon.” He stood again and turned toward her, darkness filling his face and fire in his eyes. “And so are we.”
Her hand flew to her throat. Her own voice came out in a rough whisper. “Jordan … how can you—”
“We are of his blood. His demon blood runs through our veins. That’s why we age so slowly, why we run so fast and can lift fallen trees three times our body weight. We are demons, too.”
She shook her head. She fell to her knees and whispered, “Angel. He’s an Angel. Angel blood is in us.”
Jordan growled. He grabbed his dagger and stomped to the door.
“Where are you going?”
He stopped, but kept his back to her, his shoulders tense and square.
“I’m going to find those … men … you spoke of,” he said through clenched teeth. “If they rose from the dead, as you say, I am sure they have answers about this.” He flicked his hand at Father’s abandoned bedding. “And while I’m gone, you can clear your head and accept the truth for what it is.”
Cassandra stared wordlessly as her brother disappeared through the door. Now alone, she let the emotions overcome her. She collapsed on her side, curled into herself by the fire and sobbed. She cried for Father, she cried for her brother’s obvious delusions and she cried for herself, for being left alone with so many unanswered questions. She cried herself to sleep.
She dreamt of Father in all his Angel glory and she also dreamt of demons. She felt their darkness, their evil. She knew, even in her dreams, Father was not a demon. The idea was impossible. How she and Jordan had seen something so different as Father rose from his deathbed, she didn’t understand. But she knew in her heart—in her soul—that Father was good. And that he had returned to Heaven to be with Mother.
When she awoke, light streamed through the cracks in the grass hut’s west walls, indicating late afternoon. She glanced around to see Jordan hadn’t returned and her eyes drifted over to Father’s empty bedding and then away. She wasn’t ready to face it yet. She rose and stepped outside. And blinked.
How could the day still be so bright and beautiful after all that had happened? How could the birds sound so happy and the air smell so sweet when her heart felt heavy and tight in her chest? When loneliness like she’d never felt before weighed her down like a boulder tied to her neck? This world that was exactly the same, yet completely different to her, left her feeling disoriented. She no longer knew what to do with herself. There were chores to be done and food to gather, but everyday life seemed so irrelevant now. So she lay in the grass and stared at the sky, tears seeping down her temples and into her hair.
Thin clouds passed over, shadows grew as the sun fell lower in the west and still she lay there. The tears eventually dried, but she still felt so sad. So empty. So alone. A small voice in the back of her mind told her to get up, to go on with life as Father would want. But she couldn’t bring herself to move.
A crashing through the woods startled her to alertness. She shot upright and peered across the clearing. A large shadow moved within the trees, quickly coming closer. She thought of Jordan at first, but this figure was too large and too slow to be him. The wolf. Her heart picked up speed. She jumped to her feet. Then the figure emerged from the trees and she blew out a breath. It was her brother.
His body looked misshapen, however, and he moved as if weighed down by something heavy. As he came closer, she realized he had a man draped across his shoulders. She ran across the clearing toward them.
“Jordan, what happened?” she demanded as she neared them. Her brother’s face was smudged with dirt, but he appeared to be unharmed. The man he held, however, was covered in mud and blood.
“Wolf … man,” the man said and though it came out as a whisper, she recognized the voice.
“Niko?” she asked with disbelief.
His lids slowly lifted, revealing the familiar olive-green eyes. His entire face gnarled with pain but his eyes sparked as he seemed to recognize her. Then Jordan dropped him on the ground with a thud. Niko grunted and passed out.
“Jordan! He’s hurt.”
“He’s probably dead,” Jordan said, collapsing to the ground himself.
Cassandra dropped to her knees next to Niko. He still wore the torn chiton from yesterday, his muscular chest and torso exposed. Rather than the one superficial cut he’d had before, rows of long gashes covered his chest now, as if long claws had shredded his skin. Blood and pus gushed from the battle wound in his thigh. She pushed his sweat- and blood-matted hair from his neck and felt for his life signs. A heartbeat pulsed beneath her fingers.
“He’s still alive. We must get him inside.”
“He won’t be for long. Why bother?”
“Jordan!” Cassandra admonished. “How can you be so cruel?”
“Cruel? I risked my life for him and he doesn’t even have the decency to live long enough to explain.”
Her anger flared, but so did curiosity. “Explain what?”
“That wolf. It wasn’t normal, Cassandra. Too big and too intelligent. As if it weren’t entirely animal.”
“The wolf that chased me,” Cassandra murmured.
Jordan glared at Niko’s unconscious body. “And now we’ll know nothing more about it.”
“And what makes you think Niko knows anything?”
“He keeps muttering, ‘wolf’ and ‘man.’ He’s trying to say something but always falls unconscious before anything else comes out.”
Cassandra lifted her brows. “Well, he’s still alive. Even if you don’t have the decency to care for him as a human being, if you want answers, help me get him to the house.”
“You really believe you can save him?”
“I don’t know for certain, but I definitely can’t if we leave him out here. He won’t survive the chill of night. And what if that wolf returns?”
Jordan shook his head and then jerked it toward Niko. “He got a good slash at it with his sword just before he collapsed. Then the wolf saw me coming and ran away, probably to its death.”
“You didn’t make sure? You didn’t kill it yourself?”
When Jordan didn’t answer, Cassandra cut her eyes toward him. He shook his head, without further explanation. He hid something from her, she could tell, but she had more pressing issues to worry about. She lifted Niko’s arm and draped it over her shoulder.
“Well, if you won’t help me, I’ll do it myself.”
She hoped Niko remained unconscious because he would never understand how a woman half his weight could carry him. Jordan rolled his eyes and blew a frustrated grunt through his nose. Then he rose to his feet and lifted Niko’s limp body in his own arms.
When they entered the hut, Cassandra’s eyes immediately slid to Father’s empty bedding. But she just couldn’t disturb it. Not now. And not with a filthy, bloody stranger. She gestured to Jordan to lay Niko on her own bedding. With a patient to tend to and her brother nearby, the overwhelming loneliness disappeared. She went to work, cleaning Niko up and caring for his wounds.