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Ayla knelt in the mire, searching the mucky concrete ground for signs of her quarry. She'd had no problem tracking the Werewolf this far. The foolish creature did not even realize it was being followed, and her wings, not delicately made but leathery flaps of nearly Human skin, thick boned and heavy against her back, had given her the speed to keep up with him as he rampaged through the depths of the Dark-world. But they had made her too conspicuous. As she tracked the Wolf, something tracked her.
She heard it, lurking behind her. Whatever followed had wings, feathered, if she guessed correctly from the rustling that echoed through the tunnel like tiny thunder. Perhaps it thought she wouldn't hear it. Or couldn't.
The chill that raced up her spine had little to do with the gusts of cold air that blew through the tunnels. She knew the beast that followed her. She'd heard it spoken of in hushed tones in the Assassins' Guild training rooms. It was a Death Angel.
The stories were too numerous to sort fact from fiction. Some claimed an Angel had the powers of the Vanished Gods. Some dismissed them as no more powerful than a Faery or Elf. And some insisted that to look upon one was death to any creature, mortal or Fae. Once, not long after Ayla had begun her formal Guild training, an Assassin was lost. His body was recovered, impaled upon his own sword, wings ripped from his back. She'd seen him, though Garret, her mentor, had tried to shield her. The marks on the Faery's ashen flesh indicated he had not been cut, but torn, as if by large, clawed hands. The killing blow had come as a mercy.
Whatever the Death Angels were, they did not look kindly upon other immortal creatures.
The blood pounded in her veins as she forced herself to focus on resuming the trail of her Wolf. Pursued or not, she had an assignment to carry out. Until the Death Angel struck, she would ignore his presence.
Closing her eyes, Ayla called up the training she'd received. She reached out with her sightless senses. She could not smell the Wolf, not above the stench of the sewer. She could not hear it. The irritated buzz of her antennae, an involuntary reaction to the tension vibrating through her body, coupled with the rustling of the Death Angel's wings in the shadows behind her, drowned out all other noise. She reached her hands out, feeling blindly across the pocked concrete of the tunnel wall. Deep gouges scored the surface, filled with fading rage. Her fingers brushed the residual energy and her mind lit up with a flare of red. The Wolf had passed this way.
Rising to her feet slowly, she traced the walls with her hands. Here was a splash of blood, blossoming with a neon-bright flare of pain behind her closed eyelids. Innocent, simple blood. There would be a body.
In a crouch, she moved through the tunnel, her arms low to the ground, trailing through the congealed filth there. Something dripped farther down the tunnel. It was audible, like a drop falling from a spigot to a full bucket. There was water ahead.
Dirty water, no doubt contaminated by waste from the Human world above, and the Wolf's victim would be there, as well; the despair and fear of its last moments tainted the air.
She followed the trail of blood and pain, the water rising to her knees, then to her waist. Something brushed her bare skin below the leather of her vest, and her eyes flew open. Floating beside her, split neck to groin, the empty skin of a rat. The Wolf had come this way to feed.
Summoning energy from her chest, she directed it into a ball in her palm. The orb flared bright, and she tossed it above her head to illuminate the space. To her left, another tunnel led deeper into the Darkworld. Another opened ahead of her. In the yolk of the three tunnels, hundreds of eviscerated rats bobbed in the stinking tide.
Rats. My life is forfeit for the sake of rats.
Wading through the sewage, she made her way to a low ledge. Another body waited there. The Werewolf, already twisted and stiff in death, caught between his Wolf and Human states. The grinning rictus of his Human mouth below his half-transformed snout gave testimony to the poison that had killed him before she could, and would have killed the rats if he'd not gotten to them first.
It was said among the Assassins of the Lightworld that Death Angels wait in the shadows for the souls of mortal creatures. The one that had followed the Wolf's trail behind her would not be pleased to find her there when he came to claim his prize.
She spun to face the Death Angel, caught sight of it in her rapidly fading light. Paper-white skin stretched over a hard, muscular body that could have been Human but for the claws at its hands and feet. It hung upside down, somehow gripping the smooth ceiling of the tunnel, its eyes sightless black mirrors that reflected her terrified face. It hissed, spreading its wings, and sprang for her.
Gulping as much of the fetid air as her lungs could hold, Ayla dove into the water. The echo of the creature's body disturbing the surface rippled around her, urging her to swim faster, but her wings twisted in the currents, slowing her and sending shocks of pain through her bones. She propelled herself upward and broke into the air gasping.
In a moment, the creature had her, his claws twisting in her loosened braid. He jerked her head back, growling a warning in a harsh, guttural language. He disentangled his claws from her hair and gripped her shoulder in one massive fist, his other hand raised to strike.
The moment his palm fell on her bare shoulder, she saw the change come over him. Red tentacles of energy climbed like ivy over his fingers, gaining his wrist, twining around his thick, muscled forearm. His hand spasmed and flexed on her arm but he was unable to let go, tied to her by the insidious red veins.
That was another rumor she'd heard about Death Angels. Though they craved mortal souls, the touch of a creature with mortal blood was bitter poison.
With a gasp of disbelief and satisfaction, she raised her eyes to the face of the Death Angel. His eyes, occluded with blood, fixed on her as the veins crept up his neck, covering his face.
"I am half Human," she said with a cruel laugh of relief. Whether the creature understood her or not, she did not care. He opened his mouth and screamed, his voice twisting from a fierce, spectral cry to a Human wail of pain and horror. Ayla's heart thundered in her chest and she closed her eyes, dragging air into her painfully constricted lungs. In her mind she saw the tree of her life force, its roots anchoring her feet, its branches reaching into her arms and head. Great, round sparks of energy raced to the Angel's touch, where her life force pulsed angry red. The pace of the moving energy quickened with her heartbeat, growing impossibly rapid, building and swelling within her until she could no longer withstand the assault.
She wrenched her shoulder free and staggered back, slipping to her knees in the water, sputtering as the foulness invaded her mouth.
The Death Angel stood as if frozen in place, twisting in agony. The stark red faded into his pre-ternaturally white skin. His bloody, empty eyes washed with white, then a dot of color pierced their center. Mortal eyes, mortal color. A mortal body. Ayla clambered to her feet and stared in shock, the rush of her blood and energy still filling her ears. All at once it stopped, and the Death Angel collapsed, disappearing below the water.
In the still of the tunnel, Ayla listened for any other presence. Only the gentle lapping of the water against the curved walls of the tunnel could be heard, no fearsome rustling of wings. Would another Death Angel come for him, now that he was to die a mortal death?
He burst up through the water with a pitiable cry, arms flailing. Ayla screamed, jumping immediately to an attack stance, twin blades drawn. She relaxed when the now-mortal creature dragged himself from the water with shaking arms to collapse on the ledge. His chest heaved with each jerky breath of his newborn lungs, and his limbs trembled with exhaustion. He was no immediate threat.
Curiosity overcame Ayla's training, which dictated she should kill the Darkling where he lay. How many Assassins had the chance to survey their prey this closely? How many had the chance to destroy a Death Angel? Her weapons still at the ready, still poised to carry her into legend with the kill, she moved closer.
The Angel lay on his back, his ebony feathered wings folded beneath him. His hair, impossibly long, lay matted and wet on the cement, dipping into the water. The fierce muscle structure that had made him so strong remained, but his body twitched, sapped of strength.
It seemed wrong, cowardly to kill him in such a state.
An Assassin knows no honor. An Assassin knows no pity. AnAssassin is no judge to bestow mercy, but the executioner of those who have already been sentenced, those Darklings who shun the truth of Light. The geis, seared into her brain through hours of endless repetition, burned her anew, and she lifted her knives to deliver the killing blow. His eyes slid open, flickered over her hands and the weapons she held.
With a deep breath and a whispered prayer, Ayla closed her eyes. "Badb, Macha, Nemain, guide my hand that you might collect your trophy sooner than later."
He made no noise as her daggers fell. If he had, perhaps she would have been able to finish the job. But when she opened her eyes, saw the flashing blades poised to pierce his throat and sever his spine, saw his face impassive…
Her hands opened and the knives clattered to the ledge. She did not retrieve them. Let him have something to defend himself from the creatures that would come for him, the ones who would not kill him as quickly as she would have, if she had been mindful of the geis. She had never broken an oath in her life, but no power on Earth or in the long dissipated Astral Realms could turn her head to look on him again or stop her as she waded into the tunnel that had brought her there.
He cried out then, when she was out of sight, but it was not to her. Probably to his One God, begging for help. But there had never been a God or Goddess in the Underground. Ayla knew she alone heard his prayer, and it haunted her all the way to the Lightworld.
Malachi never understood why they fell. Mortals were so bland and pink and fleshy. So uninteresting when compared to the glory of Heaven. Why fall, just to become one of them and whither and die, growing old with each breath?
As he did now.