On a barren hilltop, a teen stands with his back to the sun. His features are in shadow, his head bowed, and his lanky frame outlined by a faint purple glow; all that remains of a spectacular sunset. He stands with the confidence of the powerful; his shoulders square, spine straight, hands at his sides. As he raises his chin his eyes glint and flicker as if reflecting firelight, a hazelnut brown scattered with sparkles of emerald green. The sun’s dying rays fade, and the moonless night provides a natural invisibility cloak. Only then, when the eyes of the world are shut, does he transform. With a sound like the snapping of sails in the wind, two great wings unfurl, towering over his form like an avenging angel, with feathers so black that they seem to suck in the meager starlight around them. In one flap of the huge wings, he leaves the earth behind, majestically rising up into the ever-darkening sky. His wingbeats are soundless, so his shadow blotting out the stars is the only evidence of his progress. His piercing eyes scan the night ahead of him, surveying not the human world below, but the bright starry realm of the sky.
On the edge of a coastal cliff, a young man stands staring down at an ocean stained pink with the sun’s dying rays. Furious waves smash below him, sending up plumes of spray to hit his smiling face and outstretched arms. His eyes, the bright blue of a cloudless sky, shine with mischievous excitement as he raises his arms high above his head. Then, he dives, a slender face-down figure plummeting down the side of the cliff, destined for the sharp rocks waiting just beneath the turbulent water. His face is alight with a reckless smile as he reaches for the tides that will lead him to a watery grave. As his hands skim the surface of the water, his chocolate brown wings appear with a woosh, already spread, ending his free fall in a smooth glide. He laughs aloud as he beats his wings furiously, climbing straight up into the starry night sky. He flies a bit erratically, stopping every once in a while to turn loop-de-loops and hover on his back, staring up at the stars. All the while, though, his eyes are roaming, searching not for a lowly mortal on the ground, but for a fellow being of the sky.
It is almost dawn by the time he finds what he is looking for. He relaxes on his back, with his hands behind his head, his wings pulsating gently to keep him afloat. His eyes reflect a thousand tiny stars as he stares thoughtfully at the glowing tapestry above him. A faint warmth and light bathes the back of his head; the first rays of the sun reaching over the horizon. But they fail to pierce the darkness of night. They are sucked up by the black hole of one massive wing, spread to its full extent, rising above the head of a dark figure. The young man with the brown wings smiles happily as he flips and rolls over, turning to face the darkness at his back. “Benjamin!” he cries joyfully.
Benjamin does not react as the clear blue eyes turn to face him. He maintains his powerful stance, his wings fully outstretched, crowning his head with dark feathers pointing outward. A black cloak swirls around him, with the hood down. The very air surrounding him seems to pulsate with a dark power, a smoke blacker than night emanating from every pore, staining the air around him and blacking out the stars as the fog grows thicker. The green specks in his hazel eyes shine with superiority as he levels a disinterested glare on the figure in front of him. Suddenly, he smiles, not a genuine smile like the one that faces him, but a cold, cruel smile full of pearl-white teeth. “Joey.” His voice is dark and deep, full of contempt.
Joey’s eyes start to shine an unearthly blue as he gazes worriedly at the figure in front of him. “Benjamin, what have you done? How much power have you used?” His voice gains in volume as his eyes glow brighter, sounding both angry and concerned.
There is no reaction to his words. The cruel smile remains fixed in the pale white of Benjamin’s face. Too white, almost gray.
“Benjamin!” Joey booms, his eyes blazing in anger.
The superior glare goes from staring to unfocused. The black fog starts to dissipate.
“Benjamin!” Joey yells, his voice breaking as he realizes something is wrong.
Slowly, the green flecks in Benjamin’s eyes start to dim, the fierce light dying away as the hazel around it becomes slowly darker.
“Beroram!” He shouts the name desperately, without thinking. His eyes, no longer glowing, are open wide in concern.
As the forbidden name resounds, the fixed smile falls from Benjamin’s face. For a brief moment, the dimming green of his eyes pulses brighter, focusing once again on Joey’s blue ones. When his voice sounds again, it is faint and breathy, the weak voice of a mortal in pain. “Jaoel. Help me.” The green light dies. As soon as the last syllable has left his lips the black wings fall crumpled at his back. His eyes, now dark, fall closed, and he slowly tips over before plunging into freefall.
The sun is high overhead on a beautiful cloudless day on the coast of California, yet one stately mansion house, overlooking a sheer ocean cliff, remains dark with its windows tightly shuttered. With resilience, a few rays of sunlight still leak through the blinds into a dim room, where Joey sits on a wooden stool, his knees pulled to his chest. He looks drawn and tired, but his eyes soften as he watches the figure on the bed.
Benjamin’s skin is still deathly pale, but his breathing is strong and even. His long jet-black hair spreads across the pillow and down towards his shoulders, where it meets a puffy white duvet. “Now all he needs is time.” Joey murmurs as his eyes begin to glow brighter. His wings grow a lighter shade as his fingertip glows with a yellow light. He touches it to the middle of Benjamin’s forehead. “Slee-” he begins, but then the hazel eyes open, the green flecks in them still completely dark.
“No!” Benjamin’s voice is still weak and breathy but clear. “We don’t have time.”
“Why not? What happened? How on earth did you end up with your powers drained? What have you been up to? Why didn’t you come to me earlier?”
Benjamin endures the tirade of questions with a grimace. “Not so loud,” he murmurs so quietly that Joey has to bend in closer to hear him. “My head still hurts like hell.” He holds out his arms. “Help me up. And get me some water.”
Joey puts his hand over his mouth and winces in sympathy, before pulling his friend into a sitting position. Benjamin rests his back against the wall and lets his feet hang over the side of the bed. This time, Joey speaks quietly, almost a whisper. “You should be resting. You were in critical condition earlier. If you had come any later even my healing powers might not have been able to save you.”
Benjamin still wears his black cloak. He tugs the hood over his head, protecting his eyes from the dim light. “This is important. The Lord of the Earth is back.”
Joey is already halfway across the room, his back to Benjamin, on the way to the kitchen for the glass of water. At Benjamin’s pronouncement, he stops in his tracks and turns halfway back around, his eyes wide in disbelief. “Impossible. I saw him die.”
Benjamin opens his mouth to explain, but collapses into a coughing fit. Joey is startled into action, running into the kitchen and grabbing a glass from a cupboard over the sink with shaking hands. By some miracle, he manages to fill it with water and get it to Benjamin without breaking it, then collapses onto the stool again, holding his knees to his chest. His eyes, usually so bright and happy, are filled with an inexplicable sadness. “I watched him die.”
Joey’s hands are still shaking. Benjamin clasps one of them tightly as he puts the glass, now empty of water, down on the floor with his other hand. “Not him. Her. She’s reincarnated.”
“And she’s hunting us.”
Joey looks Benjamin over again. “She is powerful. More powerful than ever before.”
“She could be here any minute.”
“Depends. I did do her some damage. What time is it?”
“I’d say the earliest she could be here is nightfall.”
“Brilliant. That gives you half a day to sleep while I make preparations. If you did damage her significantly, then together we can take her.”
“No. I’ve slept enough. I thi-”
“Benjamin. You are in no condition to be fighting right now. I’ve done everything I can but the bottom line is that you used way too much power. Now that both of us are exiled far away from our respective realms, there is a finite limit to how long we can stay in our true forms without hurting ourselves. Your power will recharge, but it will take some time. Even if I put you in a restorative sleep all afternoon, I’ll be surprised if you can fly by nightfall.”
“But Joey you don’t understand what we are dealing with here. I do.”
“Then describe it to me. How did you get like this anyway? I know your demon form is harder to control, but one would think you would get good at managing it in five years.”
“Well she snuck up on me, which was not helpful. She’s taken human form.” He paused a moment to catch his breath.
“Human form? Well I never. Humans are quite the thing in this day and age aren’t they?”
“Of all creatures of the earth, they have the most mobility and intelligence. Also, there are billions of them. She can’t help blending in.”
“Get to the point. Describe your encounter.”
“I went out night flying last night at dusk. I have to admit that I was careless. Since we defeated the previous Lord of the Earth, I haven’t bothered with any of the precautions we considered necessary in the past. I was flying below the clouds above a large uninhabited forest of evergreen trees. She stood at the top of one of the largest in completely human form. All she had to do was raise her arm to knock me out of the sky. As I hit the ground running, I already knew that it was a battle I could not win. I was stuck in the middle of a forest for crying out loud! Roots were growing up around my feet, branches entangling my arms, and I was already injured from the fall. So I prioritized getting away. I transformed into full demon form and blasted up through the canopy. She pursued me for a long time, so I couldn’t drop demon form until it was too late. I’m sorry. I really can’t remember anything after the last time I thought I lost her and I flew straight into a giant thorny net. I was already running out of power and I guess I must have lost control in order to tap into my reserves.”
“Yeah. You were completely gone. I had to use your real name to get you out of it.”
“You used my real name?”
“I had to. You were completely transformed. You even used my real name to reply.”
“I can’t believe she didn’t pinpoint us just because of that. Using two names of power in the earthly realm should have been like a beacon calling all the immortal beings in the realm toward us.”
“I guess it really must be just us and the Lord of the Earth left then. Everybody’s been very obedient ever since Lucifer took over the heavens. Who’s keeping a tight lock on the underworld these days?”
“Vitos. The Merry Lord of Hell, they call him. Everyone loves him so much there’s no protest, even if it seems not much evil is getting done.”
“You speak as if that’s a bad thing.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter.” He sighs. “It’s none of my business anymore.”
“Back on topic. How do you know she was damaged?”
“I hit some of her actual body with that last blast. She should’ve lost at least an arm.”
“What did she look like? We need to be able to distinguish her from the average human.” The bell rings, a faint echo in this far back room. “Ah, that’s the mailman. I told the butler to take the day off because all this would be a little hard to explain. He thinks I’m normal, if a bit young to have a degree.”
“You rich nerd.” Benjamin smiles ruefully to take the edge off his words.
“If you hadn’t dropped out of high school to code video games full time, you would be rich too. Stay here and rest. I’ll be right back.”
Joey walks purposefully through a maze of hallways towards the front door of his mansion. An impatient knock pounds on the door as he reaches it. “I’m coming!” he yells, and flings the door open wide.
On the doorstep stands a teenage girl. She has messy brown hair, and eyes the brown-black color of dirt. As she sees Joey, she smiles a predatory smile, full of sharp, pointy teeth. “Hello.” Her voice is low for a girl, confident and steady. “I’m here to see Benjamin.”
Joey looks surprised, then suspicious. His eyes start to glow faintly as he takes a cautious step back from the doorway. His eyes grow brighter. “No way.” He mutters this fearfully, then raises his voice so he is almost shouting at the girl. “If you value your life then turn around right now and go back home.”
The girl keeps smiling. “I think you’d better let me in. We have a lot to talk about.”
She’s failed Joey’s test. His eyes blaze. He casts a quick glance around the deserted street before his wings materialize, their usual chocolate brown color. A blazing white light starts to gather around his hands, and his wings slowly start to get lighter, until they reach a pure, brilliant white. You may think that you have seen pure white before, but you have not. It has always been a little polluted, a little dirtied, so it’s really just a very light shade of grey. But nothing can mar an angel’s wings. They are so white that just one look at them can blind a mortal’s eyes.
But there are no mortals here. As a faint halo starts to appear above Joey’s head, the girl stops smiling. “Stop that right now,” she commands. “I want to talk to Joey and Benjamin, not Jaoel and Beroram.”
“Well Beroram’s out for the count, unfortunately. And who’s fault is that?”
“He’s not dead, is he?”
“Not yet.” The voice comes from behind Joey.
“Benjamin, I told you to stay and rest.”
“What do you think I am, a dog?” For all his bravado, he grabs on to Joey’s arm for support. Joey still hasn’t dropped angel form. The faint halo hangs in the air, a threat.
The girl smiles sweetly, but her pointy teeth ruin the intended effect. “Come on, let me in. Let’s talk.”
Joey bends down to whisper in Benjamin’s ear. “It must be a trick.”
“Maybe not. Look at her eyes. They’re completely dim. And despite the fact that you’re about to blast her with heavenly light she hasn’t changed form at all. Maybe she’s out of magic too.”
“I’ll test her.”
Joey turns back to the girl. “I’m going to test you for magical power. If you really are powerless, I’ll let you in.
The girl nods her consent regally. A ball of light gathers on Joey’s fingertip. Her presses it to her forehead. “Power levels,” he booms in his immortal voice. His eyes flick around, measuring something only he can see. “She’s completely out,” he reports. “Harmless.”
“Brilliant,” Benjamin murmurs.
Joey drops angel form. Only a slight glow in his eyes remains, a faint reminder of his immortality. “Well come on in then. Do you prefer tea or coffee?”
With Benjamin on his arm, he leads them to a cushy sitting room by the kitchen.
“Tea sounds good.” The girl flops down on the sofa. Joey leads Benjamin to a cushy chair opposite her. Then, with one last suspicious glance at the Lord of the Earth, he hurries into the kitchen to procure refreshments.
Benjamin sprawls on the chair. You’d never guess his archenemy is sitting across from him. “So you had just enough power to heal yourself but then you ran dry?”
“Exactly. An angel and a demon, working together. What’s the story?”
“Joey and Benjamin are friends.”
She looks unsatisfied with his cryptic answer. “And Jaoel and Beroram?”
“They worked together to defeat a common enemy. They tolerate each other. What’s your name?”
She smiles. Her tongue sticks out between her teeth. “Neraziel.”
“I already knew that. Your mortal name.”
Joey sweeps into the room with a tray full of steaming mugs. “So, Natalia, why did you attack Benjamin, then come to talk?” After handing mugs to everyone, he plops down on a chair next to Benjamin.
Natalia wraps her hands around her mug as if warming them. She stares intently into it as if inspecting her reflection. “Sorry about attacking you. To be perfectly honest, it was a reflex action. I had just reincarnated, so I didn’t really have a personality yet. Neraziel thought you were an invader, so he attacked. With full force. I understand you two are exiles?
“Yes,” Joey answers, for both of them. Benjamin is much too busy gulping his tea.
Natalia takes a dainty sip. “May I ask why?”
“Depends. Why do you need to know?” Benjamin drawls.
“I need to know whether either of you are too dangerous to be left alive.”
Joey and Benjamin exchange a loaded glance. Then, Benjamin straightens and meets Natalia’s eyes. “It’s a bit interconnected, but I’ll start,” he says, resignedly. “Basically, it was a coup d’etat. Many centuries ago, I was the Lord of the Underworld. I suppose one could say I was a bit of a taskmaster. I dedicated my life to spreading evil throughout the universe, and that required a lot of work. Demons are very lazy creatures. However much they liked my great vision of a world where darkness reigned supreme, when push came to shove they weren’t willing to do the work required to accomplish this goal. So, a rebellious faction emerged, mainly among the hobgoblins and bogeymen, and I was forcibly removed from power and exiled. The rest was just plain bad luck. The portal transporting me from the underworld to another realm just happened to deposit me right in front of the Summer Cloud Palace of the Lord of the Heavens, the great and powerful Jaoel.”
“My turn,” Joey cuts in quickly, even though Benjamin still has his mouth open to utter more. Benjamin tries to disguise this fact by taking a sudden gulp of tea. Natalia raises her eyebrows elegantly. Joey smiles, his eyes dancing with contained laughter, before continuing the story. “Sometimes, when I was Lord of the Heavens, I liked to go to the summer palace and sit on the steps outside the entrance gate, staring out at the starry sky and guarding my realm from evil. That particular day, I took over guard duty there because I was trying to make an important and difficult decision. You see, one of the archangels, Lucifer, was leader of a small group of mostly fairy godparents (who at the time felt they weren’t getting paid enough to deal with all of the suddenly prolific monsters-under-the-bed) that aided in the rebellions against Beroram’s rule. I wasn’t sure whether to punish them or not. Though they did act without consulting me, I couldn’t deny the fact that they probably saved the universe from an awful lot of evil by usurping that tyrant. Little did I know that Lucifer had set his lackeys watching me long ago, waiting for some sign of weakness. So, I was standing at the gate guarding the Summer Palace from the evils of the universe while pondering this technical difficulty, when Benjamin fell onto the steps in front of me. You see, Beroram had to use everything but his deepest reserves of power against the rebels, so he reverted to his mortal form. As far as I was concerned, he fell from the sky, so I thought he was the mortal form of one the guardian angels who got in a fight. I knew he looked a bit weird, but I wanted someone to talk to, and he was all beat up, so I figured healing him wouldn’t do any harm. I did, and he woke up, but he seemed a bit groggy so I just used him as a sounding board and explained my problem. Typically, when I’d finished talking he gave me a very condescending smile, though his eyes were very angry, and told me that I should definitely punish them for their impunity. Eventually he won me over with his fervor.” Joey trails off and stares into his cup thoughtfully for a moment before continuing. “ With the great benefit of hindsight, his ranting should’ve given his identity away.” He sets the cup on the table. It’s still full to the brim with tea. As he moves on with his story, there is a note of forced lightness to his voice. “Oh well, what’s done is done. Anyway, Lucifer had been spying on me the whole time to try to figure out whether I was going to punish him or not, so once he heard I did plan to demote him, he exposed Benjamin’s true identity and my crime of colluding with the enemy in front of my entire court. So I was exiled too. The end.”
Natalia claps demurely, with only her fingertips. “Well it seems you were once quite dangerous and powerful individuals. That explains why you managed to defeat my previous incarnation and retain your true identities and powers for so long in the earthly realm. However, why did you attack my previous incarnation?”
Somewhere along the line, Benjamin ‘acquires’ Joey’s tea. He enjoys it while Joey does the explaining. “Your previous incarnation was Yggdrasill, a giant tree. We defeated him several centuries ago, when we were first exiled, because it was a kill or be killed situation. A giant tree is not smart. It’s instinct was to repel invaders and the only realm remaining to us was the earthly one. We had to work together to defeat it in order to survive.”
“An acceptable answer. Well, since you’ve lived here several centuries in peace, I suppose it won’t do anyone any harm if you stay permanently.”
There is no more tea left for Benjamin to devour. “So that’s it? You’ll just leave us alone?” he asks incredulously.
“Well, not exactly…” Natalia steeples her fingers. “I want to hire you.”
“Hire us?” Benjamin sounds exasperated. “Has this all been one giant job interview to you?
Natalia smiles mysteriously. “That’s one way to say it.”
“So what do you want us to do for you?”
“I have a bit of a problem in this day and age, and I could use as many supporters as possible to help fix it. The earthly realm is being polluted. Its seas are filled with plastic, its air is contaminated with noxious gas, and its great forests are slowly disappearing, ripped out of the ground. I want this stopped, but I can’t be everywhere at once. I want you two to help me prevent the destruction of the earthly realm as we know it.”
“So you want us to drop everything and work full time as environmental protection police?” Benjamin does not sound excited. “Sorry, but I’m not interested.”
Natalia glares at him. “I’m sorry, it seems I haven’t made myself perfectly clear. If you want to stay in the earthly realm, alive, then you have to work for me. It will be a busy job, but you’ll get weekends off and holiday breaks just like everyone else.”
Benjamin glares back. “I don’t think you’re in any position to make veiled threats. The only one of us who still has power is on my side.”
“I’ll just keep reicarnating. And maybe next time I won’t be so easily reasoned with.”
Joey finally adds his opinion to the mix. “I don’t think it’s such a bad idea. I’ve always felt we really should be doing something to, you know, earn our keep.”
“Sentimental angels,” Benjamin mutters. Joey ignores him.
“In fact, while you were arguing, I thought of a cool acronym for us.” Joey sounds happy again, almost back to his old self. “We could be the Earthly Realm Protection Agency, or ERPA”.
“That sounds like the noise Natalia would make if she choked on her tea,” Benjamin remarks dryly.
“I’ll take that as an ‘oh yes, Natalia, I would be delighted to work for you.’”
Joey looks at Benjamin with pleading eyes. Finally, he concedes. “Okay, well I am very, very tired after having my powers drained, so I think I need at least three weeks sick leave to begin with. And also you should be aware that I celebrate Hanuka, Quanza, and all thirteen days of Christmas…”
“There are only twelve,” Joey stage-whispers.
“Not in my branch of Christianity! Not to mention Mardi Gras and Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day…” He drones on, listing every obscure holiday he can think of.
“Well I expect there will never be a dull moment with him on the staff,” Natalia says tolerantly. Joey disappears, shaking with laughter, into the kitchen with the tray of empty mugs.
“…and Earth Day…” Benjamin lists, still going.
“Oh I’m very glad you celebrate that. You can show your devotion to me by working especially hard!”
Joey comes back in with more tea. “Let the founding of ERPA commence!”
He looks sheepish as the other two glare at him. “I’ve just always wanted to say something like that.”