“You know what?” Simon crossed his arms and folded his wings over his head. “I’m hating this stupid planet more and more the longer I stay here.”
Mal sighed and slid back a bit farther under the cover of the tree. His wings were folded above his own head as well, keeping the rain leaking through the cover from landing on him. Beyond the canopy, rain poured down so hard he couldn’t see more than a few feet. Not that there was that much to see, anyway.
The home world of the angels was just… Depressing. Only a handful of trees stood amidst the expansive, desert-like terrain of the realm. In the distance, before Mal and Simon had taken cover, they had been able to see the ancient, skeletal remains of a city, though it was now as unreachable as the moon.
“It’s not exactly pleasant.” Mal sighed. “I…”
A small hiss sounded near Mal’s foot. He glanced down just in time to see a snake leap out and bite Simon on the leg. Mal screamed, reached down, and grabbed the snake just behind the head. He was able to snap its neck and throw the creature away, out into the rain, but not before the damage was done. Simon groaned and listed sideways before collapsing in a heap. Mal sighed and did his best to shield his companion until Simon’s healing energy could burn away the traces of venom in his blood.
It was nearly five minutes before Simon groaned and sat back up.
“See?” Simon gestured at the ground. “Everything here just wants to kill you. I thought this was a planet full of girls.” He grinned slightly. “Come on. The only two males on an entire planet of girls? We were going to rock!” After a few seconds, he just sighed and glanced back down at the ground. “And now I’m just sitting on rocks. This tree is practically just a rock. Probably why it’s still alive.”
Mal sighed and nodded. The realm was cold, wet, and not at all hospitable. He turned and just stared out at the pounding rain, desperately wishing for it to go away. He just wanted to be home. He wanted to sit by a fire, be with Sapphire, and…
He frowned slightly as his eyes caught something. A small flicker of light, like a candle seen from a mile away on a dark night. He squinted his eyes, trying to get a better look. For a moment, he thought he had just imagined it, but then a second tiny flash of light flickered through the rain.
“Simon.” Mal tapped Simon on the shoulder and pointed out into the torrential downpour. “There’s something out there?”
“Because of course there is.” Simon sighed and stepped up next to Mal. “What is it?”
The light flickered again, just a bit brighter. Simon inhaled deeply as it slowly began to grow brighter, a piercing glow in the darkness of the rain.
“Are you betting on this being good or bad?” Mal crossed his arms.
Simon took a deep breath. “Hard to tell.”
“I’m guessing it’s something good.” Mal smiled. “One of Isnita’s angels.”
“Then for the sake of disagreement, I’m going to guess that it’s something bad.” Simon nodded. “An evil robot or a clockwork drone or something.”
Mal slowly took a deep breath as the light continued to grow brighter. Stepping out in the rain would result in being driven to the ground in pain, which meant… Well, it meant that all they could do was wait. Wait, and pray.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a long wait. The light drew closer and closer, to the point of nearly blinding them. Mal had to turn his head away as the piercing beam tried to bore through his skull. Finally, with a small yelp… A metal head broke through the curtain of rain.
Mal frowned as the lights dimmed. The creature that was now folding itself underneath the tree was made entirely from metal, unlike anything he had ever seen before. Its eyes emitted a brilliant light, like torches but a thousand times more powerful. They flickered a few times before dimming entirely, leaving them more or less in the same dim lighting that they had had before.
“Well, now.” Simon leaned forward, a grin on his face. “This is something you don’t see every day. What’s your name?”
“Commander Fortrina.” A distinctly female voice boomed from the metal horse’s mouth. “Attention, all units. The males have been found. Repeat, the males have been found.”
Simon crossed his arms and leaned back against the trunk of the tree. “You have multiple people looking for us? I’m flattered.”
“Don’t be.” Fortrina sounded more than a bit annoyed. “If it wasn’t for Isnita’s orders, I would have left you to find your own way to us.”
“Good to know.” Mal muttered. “So what now?”
“Now, we wait.” The horse lowered itself to the ground, emitting a series of strange pings and pops. “And then, you’re going to hop on this creature, it’s going to take you back to our headquarters, and we’re going to figure out how to get out of this mess.”
“Almost there.” Beneath them, the metal horse spoke with the voice of… Well, whoever was running it that day. “Once you arrive, report to Commander Fortrina.”
“Yeah, I got that part.” Simon hmphed. “She’s better be as hot as she sounds, after all this.”
“Temperatures in these parts are actually much lower than they often are.”
“Oh, can it.” Simon sighed. “Mal? Any input?”
Mal just closed his eyes and shook his head. It had been almost two months since they had set off from that tree. They had climbed up onto the horse, and… Just moved. When they needed to sleep, the metal creature would use some sort of magic that Simon called a “static field” to keep them from falling off. The only times they stopped were during rainstorms, which came every few days.
That entire trip, the months of traveling, had been some of the most desolate months that Mal had ever experienced. They had gone straight through the skeletal city, walked past shattered buildings that stretched hundreds of feet into the sky even so many thousands of years after their destruction. They had left that city behind, wandering through deserts and wastelands. They had gone days without seeing a single tree at all. Mal still wasn’t sure if he had seen any water or not. And now… Now, they were almost there, and it didn’t seem to be getting any better at all.
At that moment, they were on an ancient road that wound out of yet another bombed-out city in front of them. The surface was black and shiny, fused like stone, but made from some other substance entirely. Simon had made several comments about it when they first saw it, but had said very little since then. And so, they just clopped closer and closer to the city, uncertain of what they would find.
“What do you think they’ll be like?” Mal leaned forward and whispered to Simon. “Do you think they’ll be nice?”
“I don’t know.” Simon whispered back. He flashed a grin. “If they’re all like Isnita, it isn’t going to be pleasant.”
“I assure you, Isnita is a valuable leader.” The voice boomed from the horse. “No disrespect to her will be tolerated.”
Simon grimaced. “Yeah, not going to be pleasant.”
Mal only snickered. As they got closer to the city, a flash of uneasiness pulsed through his stomach.
He really wasn’t sure what to expect. He desperately hoped that he could contact Isnita and Sapphire again, but… He just had so many questions. So many questions and not nearly enough answers. What if the angels weren’t willing to answer his questions? What if they hated him for becoming a male? Or what if none of them believed that he was Isnita’s brother?
His feeling of uneasiness only grew as they reached the edge of the city. Here, it was even worse than some of the others. Though the road itself seemed to have been cleaned off, the rest of the city was just covered in debris. Shattered bricks, bits and pieces of petrified wood, twisted scraps of metal that jutted from piles of stones at odd angles.
None of the buildings near the outskirts stood more than a few feet high. Their walls had been cracked and blasted apart, fractured and splintered like trees after a lightning strike. The city simply existed as great piles of rubble that had been scraped away from the road to allow for passage out.
As they moved deeper into the city, things seemed to improve, but only slightly. The buildings grew taller, rising to a height of twenty or thirty feet. Many of them sported great gaping holes in the sides, and for many, it was a wonder that they hadn’t collapsed at all.
“Wow.” Mal whispered. He leaned forward, trying not to let his voice be heard by the horse. “The brothers did all this?”
“It would seem so.” Simon mused. Even his voice was hushed. “I wish I knew what we had done. I… I don’t know of any weapon in our arsenal that would do something quite like this.”
Mal frowned. “You melted Nettingo into a pool of lava.”
“Right.” Simon nodded. “And you know what you don’t see here?” He held up his hands. “Heat damage. Whatever we did, it wasn’t anything nuclear. When it comes down to it, planet-destroying weapons that aren’t nuclear are fairly hard to come by, which is…” He shrugged. “Confusing.”
The horse under them gave a soft buck, reminding them that it might not exactly be the most tasteful thing in the world to talk about how a planet was destroyed in front of that planet’s residents. And so, they just continued forward, clopping through the streets.
Finally, after another hour of riding, the horse trotted around a corner, coming into view of a massive crater. Mal’s jaw dropped, and Simon’s wings gave a soft flutter of excitement.
The crater was enormous, miles upon miles across, and seemed to sit at the exact center of the city. Even on the far side, just barely visible, Mal could see toothpick-like shells of old buildings rising into the pale sky. And yet, the inside of the crater itself was a virtual paradise. A lake stood at the exact center, a crystal-blue body of water that practically called to Mal. Around it, trees rose high, stretching up towards the clouds. A flock of birds whirled across the expanse, while several rabbits and mice scurried around nearby.
“Well, now, this is what I’m talking about.” Simon flapped his wings, rising up off the horse and landing nearby. Mal did the same thing, landing just next to him. Slowly, Simon walked up to the edge, where he raised his hand and slowly reached forward. Lightning pulsed from an invisible barrier, and he nodded.
“Please wait.” The horse stepped up next to the invisible field, which Mal couldn’t help but notice seemed very similar to the shields that the brothers used. “Your escort will be here shortly.”
Only moments later, three angels emerged from the trees. None of them were the drones, all were fully sentient, and wore the sweeping white dresses that Mal had worn not that long ago. Simon whistled in appreciation, and Mal frowned. That wasn’t going to do them any favors.
“Hold still.” The first angel stepped forward and held up her hands. Lights pulsed from her palms, striking against the invisible field. “It will take a moment to open the barrier.”
Mal simply nodded, while Simon simply grinned and nodded. A few moments later, part of the barrier flickered sharply. An archway formed from lightning, clearly marking a doorway. The angels motioned for the two males to step through, which Mal happily did.
Walking through the barrier was like stepping into a cool cellar on a hot day. Instantly, the hot, arid environment was replaced by a humid, far more temperate atmosphere. Mal took a deep breath, relishing every moment. The horse clopped through the barrier, and the female angels allowed the shield to rise again, once more shielding them from the outside elements.
“Thank you, my dear.” Simon turned to the angel that had opened the gate. Unlike many of the other angels, she had brilliant red hair and a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. He bowed his head and knelt down on one knee. “I don’t know how you do things around here, but I would be honored if you would join me for a meal tonight.”
The girl gave a soft giggle, only to sigh.
“Your presence is requested by Commander Fortrina.” She pouted, then grinned. “But I’d be available tomorrow night, assuming you’re not both dead.”
Simon’s grin nearly split his face. “What can I call you?”
“My name is Patricia.” The girl batted her wings at him. “Come on, I’ll take you to Fortrina.”
Simon held out his hand, which Patricia gladly took. Together, the two started walking off into the trees. Mal just sighed and stomped after them. He was quickly flanked by the other two angels, who appeared substantially wearier of Simon and Mal than Patricia was.
In any event, it didn’t take long to walk down through the forest and to the entrance of a small cave. Two more angels stood guard, armed with large spears tipped with a deadly-looking green rock. Both of these angels were drones, complete with glazed eyes and impossibly pristine skin. Mal frowned as the two of them slowly stepped in front of the entrance, holding their spears defensively.
“We’ll have to leave you here.” Patricia batted her eyebrows at Simon. “Tomorrow night, right? My house is on the far side of the lake, next to the beaver den.”
“I’ll find it.” Simon grinned. With that, Patricia and the other three angels stepped back, out of range of the two drones.
A few moments passed, and the drones slowly stepped aside. Simon held out his hand, and he and Mal walked forward, into the darkness. The moment they were past, the two drones stepped in front of the entrance again, barring the path. Simon turned and cast a longing glance back at Patricia before venturing forward. Mal just rolled his eyes and followed.
He wasn’t certain at all what they were going to find. He wasn’t sure what Fortrina would be like, or whether or not they would be able to accomplish anything.
All he wanted to do was talk to Sapphire and Isnita again. And then… And then, find a way to end it all so he could just be with his family again.
“So what is it with you and eating meals with girls?” Mal finally asked as they walked. The tunnel was far longer than he had anticipated, dropping lower and lower, winding down and around like a snake. They had already been walking for the better part of ten minutes, and it didn’t seem like they were going to come to the end anytime soon.
Simon turned and glanced down at Mal. A brief moment of indecision crossed his face before he shrugged. “How old are you, biologically?”
Mal crossed his arms. “Eight-ish, I think is what Sapphire said.”
“Right.” Simon nodded slowly. “So… You know how boys and girls are different?”
Mal raised an eyebrow. “Hello? I’ve been both. I was a girl up until a few months ago.”
“Right.” Simon grimaced. “Look… Why don’t you have this talk with Sapphire instead? It’s more of a parent-child thing.”
Mal frowned and crossed his arms. It wasn’t that he cared that much about the answer. In fact, it was kind of the opposite. When he had still been a girl, boys just seemed so creepy and gross. And now that he was a boy, girls just seemed weird. The fact that Simon seemed to be so fascinated with girls was just… Odd.
Despite repeated prodding, Simon refused to answer any more questions. Eventually, after another fifteen minutes of walking, they reached… Something. The tunnel came to an abrupt end, sealed by a large metal plate. Simon crossed his arms, then walked up and started knocking on it rapidly.
“Hey!” Simon called out. “Open up!”
There was a muffled curse from the other side of the door. Slowly, the metal plate slid aside, into the wall, revealing a small cave, no more than thirty or so feet across. Half a dozen angels stood inside, along with a handful of the drones standing next to the walls. The only feature of the strange room was a large, magical-looking object at the exact center, a table covered in glowing lights with strange displays floating in the air above it.
Simon let out a squawk of awe as he stepped inside. Every eye in the room turned to face the two males, including a slightly taller angel that had to be Fortrina. Her hair was pulled back into a crisp ponytail, her eyes were sharp and piercing. Slowly, she walked up to the two males, staring down at them oddly.
“Simon. Mal. We’ve been expecting you.”
Simon shrugged. “We would have been here sooner, but your planet seems hell bent on killing anything and everything that crosses its surface.” After a moment, he shrugged. “Not to mention that you’re so far underground. Why build a secret lair this deep?” His eyes narrowed. “Are you hiding something from the other angels?”
Fortrina didn’t answer for a moment. When she finally did, her voice was as sharp and calculated as the rest of her body. She was as close to being an adult as any of the angels that Mal had seen.
“Isnita tells me that you were in a position of command in the army of the brothers. Is this true?”
Simon shrugged and nodded. “More or less, yeah.”
“When you were in this position, did you share every aspect of your command with the others? Did you present them with every detail, or did you hide certain things for their own good?”
Simon snickered. “Oh, we hid a lot. One time, we wound up orbiting a planet where almost every single plant functioned as a narcotic that could-”
“Please, spare me the details.” Fortrina cut him off. “If you hid things, then you understand. Not everything is suitable for the general public. When our command structure was constructed, we asked who wished to be in charge and who simply wanted to live out their lives in peace. Those you see standing before you were the ones who stepped up to the challenge. The angels outside are the ones who simply wish to swim and play games for the rest of their lives. Is this clear enough for you?”
Simon shrugged. “Clear enough, I suppose.”
“Good.” Fortrina nodded. “Do you have any other pressing questions before we begin?”
Simon frowned and scratched his head before shrugging. “Nothing comes to mind. Well, maybe one thing. Do you know if Patricia has any favorite foods that I could bring her?”
Fortrina’s face seemed to grow darker, and she stepped forward. “If you harm a single hair on any of my citizens, I swear to all the gods that I will-”
“You might want to reconsider that.” Simon cut in, taking a step back and holding up his hand. “Swearing things to the gods doesn’t usually work out well for the people on either end of the scenario.”
“Then I suggest that you keep your paws to yourself.” Fortrina hissed, then turned to the strange object at the center of the room. “Come. Quickly.”
Mal nodded and followed the strange commander to the object, which Simon proceeded to basically start drooling over. Fortrina began pressing a number of glowing runes on the object, before turning to stare at Simon.
“And just what are you doing?”
Simon took a deep breath before answering. “Do you have any idea what this is?”
“It’s one of the most powerful magical artifacts left to us by our ancestors.” Fortrina snapped. “It protects this oasis and prevents the elements from sweeping in and destroying us.”
“Nope.” Simon breathed. “Well, yes, it does do that, but…” He slowly stood up. “This is an interspatial hypersonic relay system. I’ve only ever seen one in hyperadvanced cultures, stages five or six on the Pulsi development scale. We stole one once, but lost it when Amil flew the ship through a supernova.”
Mal took a small step back from Simon. The boy was acting weirder and weirder the longer that they were in the crater. Of course, he had always been weird, but Mal was beginning to realize that he had actually enjoyed Simon’s relative silence over the previous several months.
“Now, moving on from that distraction…” Fortrina crossed her arms and nodded at Simon. “Shall we proceed?”
Simon sighed and nodded. “Go for it.”
Fortrina rolled her eyes and started pressing more runes and buttons. The displays above the object all vanished. A few moments later, a strange glowing object appeared in the air. It was a series of spheres, all set inside each other, bisected by a number of glowing red lines. Fortrina reached into the display and began moving her fingers, moving the spheres back and forth and adjusting the various lines. Mal glanced at Simon, who appeared completely and wholeheartedly enraptured by the display.
After a few seconds, the display turned green, and Fortrina pulled her hands out and away. The interlocking spheres vanished, and a fuzzy image of a girl’s head appeared. It crackled and flickered several times before solidifying into a somewhat recognizable blob.
“Isnita?” Mal stepped forward, frowning slightly. “Is that you?”
The blob, just recognizable as Isnita, spun to face Mal. The pale blue dots, what had to be her eyes, stared out of the image.
“Mal?” Isnita’s voice was almost as unrecognizable as the picture, as it crackled and faded. “You’re there?”
“Hang on.” Simon stepped forward and pressed a small red button on the side, causing the image to vanish. Fortrina stepped forward, but Simon mostly ignored her as he caused the interlocking spheres to appear above the device for a second time.
His hands blurred through the strange beams of colored light, twisting the spheres and bisecting lines around like they were toys. When he finished, he grinned and took a step back. The spheres vanished, and Isnita reappeared in almost perfect clarity.
“Mal!” Isnita was genuinely surprised this time. “Simon? You… I can see you.”
“He did something to the artifact.” Fortrina knelt down next to the device. “We should deactivate it until we can ensure that no damage was done.”
“Relax.” Simon sighed. “I told you, this is an interspatial hypersonic relay system. Your calibration was off, which meant-”
“Simon!” Isnita cut in, then sighed. “I’m sorry, Fortrina, but Simon has proven himself time and time again. And I cansee better now. When this conversation has finished, see if you can learn what he did. Much of what he says does wind up being helpful.”
There was a short pause, and Isnita turned to Fortrina. “What is your report?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary.” Fortrina crossed her arms and straightened up. “We’ve been maintaining sector sweeps, but have found nothing to indicate that our realm is in any danger.”
“Good.” Isnita nodded, then glanced at Simon. “Lacking any other evidence, I’ve ordered search parties to sweep through our realm looking for any evidence that other brothers might have followed you through. Based on the number of them that we have captured, I don’t think any did, but I want to be extra certain.”
“In wartime, caution should never be avoided.” Simon nodded. “How can we help?”
Isnita frowned slightly. “First and foremost, I need to know why you crossed over to the other side. Why just jump realms like that?”
Simon sighed and scratched his head. He opened his mouth to speak, but Mal stepped forward and beat him to it.
“We think we might be able to figure out why I changed.”
Isnita puffed out her cheeks. “You really think you can do that?”
“I think it’s our best option.” Simon nodded. “Just think about it. We know that the brothers came from this realm, which means that whatever happened to us in the distant past, whatever created us or formed us into the people we are today, it happened here. I don’t know for sure if I can find anything, but it’s worth a shot.”
“Do what you need to do.” Isnita turned and nodded at Fortrina. “Help him in whatever capacity you can. Also, start working on a way to bring them back to this realm without suffering mental damage.”
“I have a few ideas on the subject.” Simon nodded and turned to Fortrina. “I’ll help as much as I can, if you’ll let me.”
“Why not just jump across the way you’ve been jumping across?” Fortrina sneered, the sobered. “The sorceress that I’ve heard about. Can’t she just pull you?”
Mal glanced at the ground. Just thinking about it made his heart hurt. Sapphire… She had loved being a sorceress so much. And now, without her powers… How was she holding up?
“Sapphire no longer has access to the magic that allowed her to perform such feats.” Isnita sighed. “We’ll just have to do it the old-fashioned way. Whatever way that is.”
“Of course.” Fortrina dipped her head. After a few moments, she turned and glanced at both of them. “Is that it?”
“I think so.” Simon nodded. “I just need to spend a bit of time here and try to get my bearings. Whatever happened to this planet, it wrecked the place. Which I’m sure that you know far better than I do.” After a few seconds, he shrugged. “Do you have any idea where something might be hiding? Something that would hold records from before the desolation, something that might hold some sort of a clue?”
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t.” Isnita shook her head. “I promise I’ll let you know if I do remember anything. Fortrina will do the same.” She flashed a small smile. “On the bright side, we’re not in any particular rush. The dark angels are all trapped, so there’s no imminent threat to the realm.”
“Cheers to that.” Simon puffed out his cheeks. “Alright, then. Talk to you later.”
Isnita gave a short nod, and the image vanished. Simon sighed and took a step back, then nodded at Fortrina.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a short rest before we begin searching.”
“Of course.” Fortrina’s jaw snapped together several times before she sighed. She stepped up to the strange object and pressed a small button, causing a map of the crater to appear in the air. “You’ll be staying above ground, with the civilians.”
“An arrangement that I’m more than happy with.” Simon flashed a grin.
“I’m sure you are.” Fortrina sighed, then shrugged. Carefully, she pointed at a small cluster of homes. “You’ll be staying in the two new houses. It’ll be obvious which ones they are. Fruit trees can be found throughout the forest, feel free to eat whatever you want. Vegetable gardens can be found here and here.” She pointed at two other locations on the map, closer to the rim of the crater. “If you want to eat meat, we ask that you only select from our selected breeding facilities down here. There are few enough animals above ground as it is.”
“Deal.” Simon nodded and flashed a grin. “Anything else?”
“Oh, yes.” Fortrina nodded and pointed at a small building halfway up the crater. “Designated bathing facilities. There’s a hot spring there. We built individual rooms over the spouts, to give privacy.”
Simon crossed his arms and frowned. “No communal bathhouse? This planet just gets lamer and lamer.”
“Out.” Fortrina pointed at the door. “Now.”
“Alright, alright.” Simon puffed out his cheeks. “Come on, Mal. We’re not wanted around here anymore.”
As Simon stalked towards the door, Mal couldn’t help but notice that Fortrina rolled her eyes quite powerfully before turning back to the other female angels. The door swung open for them, allowing the two males to walk out and into the long, sloping tunnel. As it banged shut, Mal glanced at Simon.
“Any good ideas?” Mal held up his hands.
“A few.” Simon nodded. After a moment, though, he shook his head. “Nothing I’m going to deal with now, though.” A grin split his face. “Like Isnita said, we’re not in any rush. And before we do anything else, I have a date.”
Mal yawned as birds began to tweet loudly, bringing life back to the forest after the long night. He hadn’t slept much at all, due partly to the carefree nature of the other angels in the area and due, perhaps more, to Simon’s rather explosive fight with Patricia that had kept the entire crater awake.
He yawned and stood up, nearly hitting his head on the roof that had been made from sticks and moss. Carefully, he glanced to the opposite side of the tiny room, where Simon lay curled up in a ball, snoring softly. Without Patricia. Mal flashed a small smile at him before turning and stepping through the small doorway and into the open.
They were in a small group of the stick-homes, about fifty or so dwellings in various states of disrepair. Several angels just lay on the ground, wings curled around themselves like blankets. A few of them huddled together for warmth, but most of them just sat around on their own. The lake at the center of the crater was visible only a few hundred feet away, and seemed to be rippling in the early morning twilight.
Mal frowned and glanced at the water’s edge. A lone figure stood by the lake, wings spread. Mal yawned and flapped up into the air, gliding in that direction. He landed just next to her and glanced her way, finding Patricia just staring into the depths of the lake.
“I don’t know how he can sleep after that.” Patricia muttered. “Does it not bother him? At all?”
Mal just sighed and crossed his arms. He wasn’t certain at all what Simon had attempted to do, but it obviously hadn’t gone over well.
“Simon is a bit of a mixed bag.” Mal finally shrugged and gave his wings a soft flap, enjoying the way it felt to have the cool morning air blow through his feathers. “He means well, but…”
“He’s awful.” Patricia stamped her foot, then sighed. In the distance, a massive trout broke through the surface of the water, leaping up into the air before crashing down again. “I hate him, and I never want to see him again.”
Mal winced, then glanced in her direction. He didn’t understand most of what Simon said when it came to girls, but… Maybe he could learn something? “What did he try to do?”
Patricia just shook her head. “I don’t want to say.”
Mal felt heat rise to his cheeks. It was the same response that he always got, no matter who he asked. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s okay.” Patricia took a deep breath. “He… He wanted to…” She shrugged. “He wanted to press his mouth up against mine.”
Mal frowned and turned to her. “He wanted to kiss you?”
“Yes!” Patricia crossed her arms and ground her teeth together. “He wanted to kiss me! Can you believe that?”
Mal stroked his chin for a moment. “I take it that you guys don’t kiss much around here?”
Patricia took a deep breath, then sighed. Her wings drooped, scraping against the soft ground. “That’s something that’s normal where you come from?”
Mal nodded. “Hes and Pauline kiss all the time. At least they used to.” He frowned. “I’m pretty sure Mommy kissed some guys too, when she drank too much at the pubs. It’s pretty normal.”
Patricia grimaced and lowered her head. “I… I guess I owe him an apology, then.”
“Why did you think it wasn’t normal?” Mal crossed his arms. “Do you guys not…”
The thought struck him a moment later. As Simon was so fond of pointing out, it was a realm of entirely females. And kissing, from Mal’s perspective, had mostly been between boys and girls.
“Fortrina doesn’t like it.” Patricia shrugged. “Anytime someone does that… Kisses… someone else, there are consequences.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “It’s been so long ago I can’t even remember why anyone kissed in the first place.”
Mal shrugged and reached his left wing out, dipping his black feathers into the water. “I’ve never kissed anyone, but…” He shrugged. “Seems to me that it happens when someone really likes someone else.”
Patricia’s eyes opened wide. “You think that Simon likes me?”
Mal nodded. “At least for right now.” He chuckled. “He tends to like a lot of girls at any one time. One time, he asked out me, Isnita, and Mommy on a date at the same time. That was back when I was still a girl.”
“Hmm!” Patricia flashed a small grin. “I’ll have to go apologize to him.”
Mal grimaced. “I’m not sure I would exactly do that either.”
By the time the words left his mouth, Patricia had already turned and wandered away. Mal glanced back to see her ducking into the doorway of the house that Mal and Simon had stayed in. He sighed and turned back to the lake. If he wasn’t mistaken, it was going to be awhile before he saw either of the two of them again.
As it turned out… It was. The sun finished rising, casting warm beams down through the protective barrier and across the lake waters. Frogs came out and started croaking, trumpeting their call across the wilderness. The other angels began to slowly wake up and start their routines, racing around the lake and diving into the waves for quick swims. A few began flashing through the sky, wheeling and diving in a rather fantastic dance.
After entirely too long, both Simon and Patricia reappeared. Simon smiled at her, then gave a small wave. She waved back, despite the fact that they were standing right next to each other, before turning and flying away. Simon’s grin turned far sourer as he walked over to Mal, where he took a deep breath.
“Mal?” He put a hand on Mal’s shoulder. “When have I ever asked you to be my wingman?”
Mal frowned. “We’ve flown next to each other lots of times.”
“Not that.” Simon sighed and rubbed his jaw. “You told Patricia I was interested in her.”
Mal scratched his head. “You were.”
“Not after last night.” Simon sighed and crossed his arms tightly. “These angels have been separate from society for so long that they don’t even understand the barest concepts of romance. I had to teach her how to kiss.” He gave a soft huff. “Any other girl stays in a room that long with me, things happen. But no, I had to give a three-hour lesson on how to kiss, the history of kissing, when it’s appropriate and when it isn’t, and-”
Mal raised an eyebrow. “You could have just told her no when she asked to learn?”
“And risk not getting to kiss her at all?” Simon snorted. “Oh, you’re so young.”
Mal held up his hands in disbelief. Simon matched his gaze, and they just stared at each other for several moments before breaking into snickers and snorts. Finally, Mal took a deep breath and shrugged.
“So, any good ideas last night?”
“Actually, yes.” Simon nodded, then wagged his hand back and forth. “Sort of. I actually had the idea yesterday when I saw that relay device, but I didn’t want to risk not making my date with Patricia.”
Mal groaned. “You mean that we could already be on the trail of something?”
“Yes.” Simon nodded and turned, striding towards the cave. Mal hurried to catch up, and Simon shrugged. “Do you remember what I called that thing? The magical heirloom or whatever?”
Mal frowned as he tried to remember. “A hyper relay thingy?”
“An interspatial hypersonic relay system.” Simon nodded. “It’s a device that we used on our realmships, back when there was still a fleet of them. It would allow us to communicate between ships, even when we were realms apart. From what I can tell, this device was modified to allow it to talk to actual, living beings, not just computers.”
Mal nodded slowly. “What does that mean?”
“The part about it being able to talk to living beings was a digression.” Simon frowned and flapped his wings. He grew quieter as they reached the drone sentinels in front of the cave entrance, only speaking up again as they descended into the depths. “The important part is that it’s a relay. Its primary function is to connect to other, similar devices. In fact, it won’t work properly at all if it isn’t able to reach out and borrow processing power from the others. The fact that the device they have down there is able to reach across a fifty-degree dimensional separation and pull out Isnita’s voice clear as a bell means that it has to be connected to other units.”
A flash of insight worked its way into Mal’s brain. “You think that there are other units somewhere in this realm.”
“Ah-ha!” Simon jumped up in the air and flapped his wings, nearly hitting his head on the ceiling of the cave. As he came down, a grin was spread across his entire face. “You’re learning! Yes, that’s my exact thought.” He turned and took a deep breath. “We already know that this desolation was probably caused by the brothers bombing the planet. Presumably we were trying to wipe out all traces of the sister’s civilization, but…” He shrugged. “We missed something. Something survived. The fact that this crater exists, the fact that it’s protected by a force field, the fact that the ecosystem is only thriving through artificial interference, that could be the result of this one unit.” He shook his head. “The fact that it can reach across dimensions as well as it can? There’s more going on here. And I’m going to find it.”
With that, Simon turned and began walking down the corridor once again. Mal suddenly found it difficult to keep up with the older angel, as Simon began to lope through the cave with quite a great deal of speed. By the time they reached the metal door, he was moving so quickly that he nearly collided with it. As the door grated open, he swept inside as quickly as possible.
“It’s about time you showed up.” Fortrina stood next to the relay machine, which had Isnita’s figure hovering over top of it. “Did you enjoy your night with Patricia?”
“Actually, no, but thanks for asking.” Simon sighed and walked up to the device. He nodded at Isnita and crossed his arms. “What’s up?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing.” Fortrina’s voice was cold. “I told you I didn’t trust him. I told you we should have-”
“Simon has risked his life again and again for us.” Isnita snapped. “He had no part in what happened.”
Simon raised an eyebrow, and Mal felt a brief flash of fear as a number of drones stepped out of darkened alcoves and leveled spears at their chests.
“And what did happen?” Simon’s voice dropped several degrees. “Nothing good, I assume?”
Isnita sighed and shook her head. “The brothers escaped. I don’t know how yet, we’re still trying to figure it out ourselves, but they’re gone, and that’s the most important thing. The worst part is that Lord Apician is blaming it on the king, and is using it as leverage to try and displace us.”
Fortrina sneered. “You’ve only been over there a few months and you’re falling to their politics.”
“No.” Isnita held up a hand, staring at Fortrina with an unbridled intensity. “Right now, the Apician Estate is the only fortress we have. If we lose it, we lose access to all the king’s information networks, we lose access to any armies we might have had, and we lose access to weapons and armor for ourselves. With the brothers on the loose, that’s not a scenario I want to see.”
Simon puffed out his cheeks. “I can tell you what I know about Ferguson. I might be able to help you figure out where he’ll go or where he’ll hide.”
“And I would appreciate that.” Isnita sighed. “In the meantime, have you made any progress on your side?”
Simon and Fortrina both spoke at the same time. Fortrina turned and glared at Simon as he quickly laid out his theory about the connected relay network. Mal couldn’t help but notice that he used significantly shorter words, clipping through the conversation far faster than he had on the way over. When he finished, Isnita nodded slowly while Fortrina’s face seemed more akin to horrified.
“Do it.” Isnita nodded. “Whatever time we might have had is running out. If you can find some way to stop the brothers, we have to do it.”
“Commander.” Fortrina dipped her head. “Forgive me, but should we really be allowing an infidel like this access to our sacred artifacts.”
“Fortrina.” Isnita’s voice was crisp. “Do you or do you not understand the stakes that we are under?”
Fortrina ground her teeth together. “The brothers are on another realm. If we bring you back here, by your own admission, with the destruction of their realmship, they will be trapped. We can continue to live out our existence in peace.”
“That’s true.” Isnita took a deep breath. “Or…” She paused. “What if we came over to Calsin? All of us?”
“No.” Fortrina sneered. “This is our home!”
“A home that can’t hold a candle to this new place!” Isnita leaned forward. She took a deep breath and sighed. “When I first contacted Malah, I couldn’t understand how she could love a land that wasn’t our home. Now I know.” Isnita slowly turned to Mal. “And I can’t wait for you to find a way back so we can live here together.”
Mal felt a smile crack across his face. “I can’t wait, either.”
“Good.” Isnita nodded. “Simon? Do what you need to do. Fortrina? Help him in whatever he needs. If there’s anything in our realm that can help us, we have to dredge it up.”
With that, Isnita flickered and vanished. Mal turned to face Fortrina, who was so angry he wouldn’t have been surprised to find smoke curling from her ears.
“Get it done and then get your filthy hands off my artifact.” Fortrina took a step back. “Now. Quickly.”
Simon nodded and stepped up to the object. He motioned for Mal to join him, and Mal quickly stepped forward. As Simon’s hands flicked across the various knobs, dials, and runes, he whispered softly to Mal.
“How are you holding up?”
“Fine?” Mal whispered back. “Why wouldn’t I be doing well?”
“Lots of girl drama.” Simon shrugged and continued to work, his lips barely moving. “Whatever happens, stay close to me, okay?”
“Okay.” Mal nodded, trying to figure out what Simon was talking about. “You think something’s going to happen?”
“Just a hunch.” Simon shrugged. “Fortrina doesn’t like us already. Somehow, whatever we wind up finding, I don’t think she’s going to like it. And I suspect that she isn’t just going to let us go free.”
Mal closed his eyes and nodded slowly. It made sense. If they did wind up discovering something in the realm, there was a solid chance that Fortrina wouldn’t want to hear it. She didn’t seem keen about helping Calsin, which just… It made for an interesting thought process.
It didn’t take Simon long to cause a map to appear in the air above the relay system. Fortrina hissed and stepped forward as the map began to grow and change, encompassing the crater and the area around it. Slowly, the crater shrank, allowing the map to cover a larger and larger area. Mal’s eyes went wide as the image showed the enormous scale of the city and the desolation. He had walked through it, but it was hard to truly comprehend how large something was without flying over it. Now, the tiny toothpick-like buildings just stared up at him, as if daring him to try and survive in the desolate environment.
Finally, as the crater itself shrank to a single green dot in a sea of brown and yellow sand, the map stopped growing. Mal could see the enormous city that the crater sat in, along with a large stretch of sand leading to another nearby city that seemed to be in much the same shape. As Simon pressed a handful more buttons, a red light appeared in the center of the second city, blinking and pulsing quite ominously.
“There.” Simon nodded and pointed to the dot. “That’s where this thing is connected to. I’d say at least ten or fifteen other devices, all in one spot.”
“Huh.” Fortrina crossed her arms. “Too bad you can’t go there.”
Simon raised an eyebrow and slowly turned around to face the angel. “And why is that?”
“It’s a forbidden zone.” Fortrina shrugged. “We wrote it in the charter of guidelines. Rules laid down by our past selves. No one is to enter that city for fear of awakening the beast.”
“The beast?” Simon sighed. “Look, I’ve fought my share of monsters in the past, maybe I can-”
“No.” Fortrina crossed her arms. “The number one rule, the rule that all angels must follow, is to trust your past self. Whatever you knew then, we may have forgotten. Always. Trust. The. Past.”
“Well…” Simon shrugged. “We don’t have that luxury right now.”
“You’re not getting into that city.” Fortrina sneered. “I don’t care how hard you push, I don’t care what you try on me. There’s something in there that we’re not supposed to awaken. I’m not going to watch you destroy the last remaining paradise on this realm just because you’ve managed to fool Isnita and transform Malah.”
Simon took a step forward and fell to his knees. “Isn’t there any loophole? Anything at all? I could do anything you ever dreamed of.”
Fortrina took a step closer towards Simon, and Mal took a step towards the door. Somehow, he had the odd feeling that Simon was about to try something.
“The only thing I have dreamed of in the last hundred thousand years is being free of the curse of our species.” Fortrina hissed. “Given that that isn’t possible, I’ll settle for making sure you never see the light of day ever again.”
With that, Simon snapped his wings downward, launching himself up into the air. He threw himself forward, planting a kiss directly on Fortrina’s lips. The angel’s eyes went wide, and she staggered back, apparently in shock. The other angels in the room glanced in her direction, and Simon turned, flapped his wings, and bolted for the door. Mal was right on his heels, flashing through the metal doorway and into the hallway in a blur.
With that, the two male angels erupted down the hallway, flashed past the sentries, and up into the sky. Simon held up his hands in front of him, firing a pulse of energy ahead of him. It didn’t take long for the energy to strike against the invisible shield, opening a small hole. Simon flashed through, then Mal… And they were free.
As the two of them flashed over the crater, Mal glanced down. He could see dozens of the carefree angels just bouncing around by the lake, dancing in the morning sun or just lounging around in peace. Meanwhile, dozens more of the drones launched upwards from the trees, arcing for the two males.
“This way.” Simon pointed off to the left, banking away. Mal followed, zipping closely after him. He glanced back to find an array of the drones floating in the sky, watching them, but not following. Mal took a deep breath and flew a bit faster, gliding up next to Simon.
“What now?” Mal held up his hands. “We get to this place, see if we can find anything, and… Then what?”
“Fight an ancient beast that’s probably dead, find a way back into the crater that doesn’t involve our deaths, and try to get back across the realms without wiping our minds.” Simon shrugged. “And, quite possibly, grovel before Fortrina because we didn’t actually find anything.”
Mal nodded slowly. “Was there anything you saw that you didn’t tell Fortrina?”
“No.” Simon shook his head. “Of course…” He flashed a grin. “That’s kind of telling, in and of itself. I’ve said before that these things are relays, set to communicate with each other.”
“Right.” Mal nodded. “And?”
“And these relays have most of their systems sealed off.” Simon grinned. “The device in the crater could see them, but it couldn’t pull any data from their systems. They’re hiding something. Something that we actually have to be there to find.” He took a deep breath. “We’re close, Mal. And then we can finally end all of this.”
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