Today, of all days. It was Thursday. The world couldn’t end on a Thursday.
Luniel, the fallen angel, crouched on the shore of Liberty Island in a hot August sunset with blood lapping at his feet. It licked the rocks beneath his boots, clotting. All the way across the bay, to the firelit Brooklyn shore and the gleaming blue arcs of the Narrows Bridge, what used to be water gleamed sick and scarlet.
The angel sniffed the air, and tasted copper. A dead fish bobbed belly-up, pale white flesh and fins. He poked the warm liquid with his finger, and licked. Yeah. Definitely blood. And human. There were seaweeds and algae that sported the same fleshy color. But Luniel had tasted enough blood in his three thousand years to know this wasn’t algae.
He straightened. No breeze flicked his long black hair back. In his human guise, he had no wings. He scanned the distant shore with sharp blue eyes, further than any human could see, and his nose twitched. Hunting. For something. Anything. A trick. A college prank. A fish slaughterhouse. Overflow from some industrial accident, one of the factories along the built-up Jersey waterfront spilling toxic chemicals.
Not a sign of the Apocalypse. Not God’s wrath.
Across the bloody bay, Babylon’s glittering towers razored the red sky, the decadent sprawl of skyscrapers and spires they once called Manhattan. The sunset flashed on steel and mirrored windows, glaring in competition with neon lights and rainbow columns of virtual advertising. Even from here, Lune’s preternatural ears detected buzzing electrics, the faint digital beep of comms towers, snatches of conversations, and in his magical angelsight, the city glowed, green with the living, pulsing energy of human souls.
Helicopters lasered their searchlights through smoke and heat haze, sweeping over burned-out housing projects and shining condominiums. Traffic noise hummed, the groaning subway, horns and engines and wailing sirens, police and fire and the ever-more-urgent ambulances. At the height of summer, plague had stolen into the Empire State like a homicidal houseguest, more frightening than California dengue and deadlier than arctic flu, and people were afraid.
But terror happened in Babylon, the world’s richest, rottenest city of sin. You only had to look at the shining glass spire piercing the sky, one hundred and ten stories high, built back in wiser days where a pair of ill-fated twin towers once stood. The world had turned ever more rapidly to shit since then, but Luniel still remembered that day well. That day, angels dived for earth, fiery wings flashing, but it was too late. Even the fallen, like Lune, were powerless. The people screamed and died and thought the world was ending.
Horrific? Yeah. But the monkeys had no idea what they were in for.
What the end of the world would really be like.
Luniel shivered. This wasn’t over yet. It couldn’t be.
He dug into his jeans pocket for his phone, and speed-dialed. Trendy SIM implants in your ears were all very well for humans, but fast-healing angelflesh rejected biotech. The irony was pleasing and bitter. “Come on, Ithiel,” he muttered. “Answer your rotted phone.”
Ithiel was still on heaven’s A-list, but he and Lune stayed in contact. If anything was going down, Ith would know. But voicemail kicked in, his brother’s laid-back laughter: I’m busy. Leave a message. If I give a shit, I’ll call back.
Luniel swore—even after centuries, defiance felt good—and waited for the beep. “Party never stops upstairs, huh. Call me, asshole,” he said, and ended the call.
A week. Ithiel hadn’t answered for a week. And now this.
It could be stupid luck. Coincidence. Random events colliding like flotsam.
But after two millennia spent dealing out heaven’s wrath, and going on another one walking the earth and seeing it all from the other side, Luniel was wearily certain that what goes around, comes around to kick you in the balls.
Coincidence was bullshit. Nothing was random. Everything happened for a reason, and fate was one dastardly, despicable motherfucker you just couldn’t avoid.
But inexorably—inexplicably—the blood lapping at his feet made him angry.
Defiantly, recklessly, sinfully angry.
He unclenched his fingers, and called another number. Above him, Lady Liberty looked on, unmoved. “Dash, it’s Lune. There’s something I think you should see.”
“Lune, you old dog.” Dashiel’s voice, rough with whiskey and centuries of shouting on the battlefield. A shuffle, his hand over the phone to block out music, clinking glass, the laughter and noise of a party. “Got my hands full here. Can it wait?”
“No. I’m on the shore at Liberty Island. Get down here.”
“Okay, but I warn you . . .”
Warm breeze rippled Lune’s hair, and Dashiel materialized with a white flash and a whoomph! of displaced air. Dashiel was the leader of their fallen gang, a bunch of shunned angels called the Tainted Host, still chained in servitude to a heaven that liked to pretend they didn’t exist. The Tainted had done bad things, but not bad enough to get cast into hell forever. They were one step away from damnation. Which kinda made it hard to say no to any of the dirty jobs heaven handed out.
“. . . if that luscious little lady blows me off, I’ll blame you,” finished Dash, stuffing his phone back into his pocket. Rich brown hair tied back, sun-bronzed skin, flashing dark eyes. Lune was taller than most humans, but Dash stacked inches on that, and pounds of extra muscle to match. He wore dark jeans, a white shirt and a golden snakecharm on leather around his neck, and he had a cherry-red lipstick kiss on his cheek.
He folded his wings, ruffling shiny feathers the color of espresso flecked with gold. “What’s the emergency?”
Luniel sighed, and slipped his phone away. “Jesus. Stealth it up, Dash. It’s the twenty-first century, not the Dark Ages. We’re not exactly top of the charts these days.”
“Like anyone can see me,” Dashiel scoffed, but he did cover up, sliding on his human guise. Not that it helped much. His wings vanished, and his coloring faded to a more acceptable level, so it didn’t dazzle human eyes. That was all. He still looked unearthly.
They all did. Long ago, when they’d been created, they’d needed no better disguise. Getting recognized as heaven’s messenger was totally okay, back when forty-day floods and burning bushes were the rage. These days, faith was a war, with every street corner the battlefield. Nothing like making yourself a target.
Dash rolled his massive shoulders, adjusting his balance. “Satisfied? What’s going on, dude? And what’s that stink?” He stared, and sucked in a breath. “Holy shit.”
“It’s holy some damn thing. Blood in the ocean. The second sign. You know anything about this?”
“Nope.” Dash crouched and swiped a sword-callused hand through the gore, bringing up a clotted handful. He rubbed his fingers together, and grimaced. “The archangels don’t tell me anything. You know that. They just call when they want someone’s ass kicked.”
Fuck. Lune had hoped it was all under control. He’d never been too good at saving people. Get too close, they depend on you, and then splat! Shit happens, and you’re alone and guilty. “Mike didn’t mention anything?”
“Very funny. Mike never mentions anything. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s . . . y’know.” Dash wiggled his fingers in mock mystery. “The End. Could just be—”
“Ithiel’s missing, Dash.” Luniel’s voice strained tight.
Dash scratched his head, streaking blood. “Uh-huh. ‘Off on heaven’s secret business’ missing? Or, y’know. ‘Missing’ missing?”
“Hasn’t answered for a week. He always answers. You know the story, Dash. Seven vials of Himself’s wrath, hidden by seven guardian angels. Empty them out, spill the seven plagues and it’s all over. What if . . .” Lune hesitated. “What if Ithiel’s a Guardian? And something’s happened to him?”
Dash frowned. “Like what? Even if you’re right, which I’m not saying you are, there’s this thing kicking around called God’s Plan. You might have heard of it? If the big guy says it’s over, it’s over.”
Lune shook his dark head, stubborn. “No. Ithiel would’ve told me. Something’s not right, and it’s not just the sea going O-positive.”
Garbage lapped the shore in bloody clumps. Dash poked at a dead fish with his boot. “Say you’re right. Been a while since I read much. The sea turning to blood is the second plague? What’s number one? Something about sores and shit?”
“‘The first angel poured out his vial upon the earth, and there fell a noisome and grievous sore upon men,’” Lune recited dramatically. A chill rippled his spine, and he longed to stretch his wings and fly away. “Shit. The Manhattan virus.”
“Don’t you watch CNN? They’re calling it the zombie plague. Broke out a few weeks ago in Babylon. Rots human flesh, eventually kills them. But it turns them into cunning homicidal maniacs first. It’s a real beauty.”
Dash stared, silent. And then he laughed, humorless, shaking his dark head. “Oh, man. Save my life from becoming a bad movie.”
“Dude, your life is already a bad movie. Complete with naked girls and bow-chicka-bow-wow.”
“Watch it and weep,” said Dash cheerfully. “A few more naked girls in your life might pull that stick from up your ass. When’s the last time you got some action?”
“That long, huh? It’s not like you’re no one’s type, Lune. Chicks dig that bad-boy look.”
Oh, yeah. Chicks dug it, all right. Chicks digging it wasn’t the problem. The problem was getting them to undig it afterwards. Lune had learned his lesson a long time ago: don’t get attached. It only ever ends in disaster.
But still, his body flushed hot and hard thinking about a woman’s sweet curves. A human woman, by choice. Now he was Tainted, he didn’t have to worry too much about the little sins, and Dash was right about one thing: it’d been one fuck of a long time. Female angels were beautiful, but something about human women aroused Lune most deliciously. He’d always liked their fleshy scents, their skin’s hot salty flavor, the slick honey of their sex . . .
He snorted, avoiding the issue. “The last time? Wait, let me see. Oh, yeah. That was right before the fucking Apocalypse started and no one told me.”
“Worst damn excuse I ever heard.” Dash sighed, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Okay. This could be just coincidence. I’ll call Mike, see if I can get the latest. But only because I like you, Lune. You know that asshole makes me want to punch him.”
“So punch him. What’s he gonna do, shun you again?”
Dash guffawed. “Oh, stop it, you saucy hussy. Don’t tempt me. You wanna come?”
Lune gulped. Ever since he’d fallen foul of Michael’s wrath—it didn’t matter how you felt about a woman, lust was still a sin for an angel of heaven—the saccharine scent of archangel made him sweat. And Michael himself was . . . hard to take.
“Ah. No. I’m gonna look for Ithiel. Why don’t you take Japheth?” he suggested. Japheth was another of the Tainted, a mighty warrior shunned for the sin of pride. “He was Mike’s favorite once.”
“And I still wonder about that boy’s taste in men. I’ll give him a call. Maybe he can flirt Mike into fessing up.” Dash thumped Lune on the shoulder, affectionate. “Don’t worry, kid. You’ll find your brother shacked up with a lady, or on some secret messenger-of-oh-by-the-way-you’re-screwed mission. All this Apocalypse shit will be piss and wind. Just you watch.”
“Just you watch,” echoed Lune faintly as Dash disappeared.
He sighed. He should get on and look for Ithiel. He knew his brother’s scent like he knew his own. He’d cruise the city, make a few calls. Shouldn’t be too hard.
But his gaze kept drawing back to the ocean of blood.
Thing was, when the world ended, humans had somewhere to go, be it heaven or hell. They lived forever. But unless they earned redemption—or, more likely, heaven lost patience and finally cast them into damnation—Tainted angels were soulless. When it all wrapped up, they’d be . . . nothing. Emptiness. Oblivion.
Luniel glanced down at the rising blood tide, and the salty meat stink crawled into his guts and coiled there, uneasy.
All piss and wind.
For all their sakes, it’d better be.