Steve Jackson Games In Nomine

Burning Feather

A Bright Dream

By Derek Pearcy

From Pyramid #21

Patricia held the angel in her arms until he died. Sad thing, that – not to say a bad stroke of luck for us.

The demon had just bitten my thumb off, and he sat there looking at me with this "I just bit your thumb off" grin on his face like I was a moron or something. But I was about three steps to the left of what you'd call a state of shock, so maybe I wasn't an unbiased witness at that point.

It was the first time I'd ever thought seriously about The Meaning of It All. I remembered what Patricia had told her angel as the life bled out of him.

"This is not really you," she'd said as she cried, more for herself than for him, "this body is just a vessel. This is just a vessel."

This is not really me, I thought to myself, trying to staunch the blood from my right hand with the grip of my left. This body is just a vessel. This body is just a vessel.

Didn't help much. Just because I'd talked to angels didn't make me feel any better about life.

There's probably a lot you don't understand. I mean about the angels and all, not stuff like quantum physics and economics. Nobody understands those yet, not even the angels. But I didn't know anything about the bright side of the celestial realm until recently, so maybe I'm a good person to explain it to you.

Of course, the easiest way for me to get you up to speed is to tell you how I found out about it. Isn't it fashionable to do a scene where the reader flashes back vicariously through the main character's perspective while he relives the really juicy pieces of exposition? Why don't we get that out of the way up front?

Let me tell you about the first time I met Nicole, my angel.

Shuffling down a lonely downtown street after an evening of weeknight drinking, I heard this strange noise coming from an alley. No particular kind of noise – it was more like I'd remembered having heard a sound where no sound had just been. Like I said, it was strange. Normally, I keep on walking when I pass an alleyway, no matter what noise echoes out of it, but this time I was curious. It was only a few hours away from the midnight of my birthday, and I'd made a promise earlier to take a few more chances this year. I remember thinking, "I want to start a new life." That, and I was pretty well plastered after ditching a pre-birthday gathering of friends at a downtown bar. So I was feeling artificially brave anyway.

Standing about halfway down the brick-lined alleyway, leaning up against a misshapen brown dumpster that didn't look like it'd been emptied this decade, was this beautiful blonde girl in a sparklingly clean overcoat. Well, she looked like a girl. Really, she was an angel whose corporeal vessel happened to look like that of a young human girl, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

While I was distracted staring at her, this guy darts out from the other side of the alley. I don't know if he'd been hiding between two sacks of garbage or what, but before I knew it he was on me.

And then, just as quickly, he was launched back across the alley by some invisible force, knives spinning out of each hand as he hit the brick wall and slid down, landing face-down on the pavement.

"Look," she said, approaching me, pausing briefly to pick up the two knives. "We don't have a lot of time here."

"Who are you?" I demanded somewhat shakily. "Did you just take that guy out?" She was a tall girl, but she looked pretty wispy to me, not at all someone who could just pick a guy up and launch him across the alley, and certainly not from 20 feet away. She continued walking toward me.

"I'm an angel," she said. "You can call me Nicole. I took him out because he was going to kill you for the eight bucks you've got in your wallet left over from the ten you stole from your boss before going out drinking." That threw me.

"What do you want?" I asked more calmly. I was a little drunk, but I wasn't going to just lose it in front of a stranger, especially if this was some elaborate con game. "How, how did you –"

"I'm an angel," she said matter of factly. "I'll prove it to you in a just a moment." By now she was very close, so close I could smell her breath. Peppermint.

"And that piece of shit at our feet who's about to recover his consciousness," she whispered into one ear, "he would've killed you if I hadn't stopped him. I took a chance saving your life, I changed your fate. I removed you from the Symphony, at least for now."

"The what?" My world was whirling at right angles to itself.

"The Symphony," she repeated. Her voice grew musical and hypnotic. She kept leaning more closely, but without actually touching me. "It's what we angels call God's pattern of reality. The Earth, and everything on it, is part of the Symphony. You see, angels aren't supposed to be on Earth. We don't want to be here, it's just our job. But when a celestial being, like me, takes up space in the real world, I'm bumping into all sorts of atoms and spinning them all crazy from where they would have gone if I hadn't been there. Celestial intervention sets the Symphony out of balance – it makes all sorts of complicated ripples. The larger the change, the more noticeable the ripples. Other celestial beings can detect these aberrations and use them to track down their source."

"Wh-what are you getting at?" I shivered, realizing that I was no longer merely standing close to her, I was paralyzed by her proximity.

"You're a human, you're supposed to be here on Earth. I'm an angel – I'm not supposed to be here messing things up even worse than they already are. Killing a human is one of the most dramatic changes anyone can make to the Symphony but you, as a human, can do things very simply that are very difficult for me, and if you're quick and clever, no one will ever be the wiser." She pulled away from me and held out my mugger's knives. I took them.

"There's nothing I can say to convince you I'm an angel," she said, backing away slowly, "there never is. But relax, trust me, empty your mind and decide for yourself whether or not I'm telling the truth. Then I'm going to ask for a little favor."

Her body began to unravel, not in pieces, but in a flurry of strips, like pages of sheet music falling from a conductor's hand. When her clothes and her flesh had been stripped away, only a dim glow remained in front of me – but if I relaxed, and let the glow take its own form instead of forcing my mind to give it shape, I could make out the vision of the pure her: smooth-skinned and wiry thin, with wings of light and eyes full of strength and passion and nobility. No one could ever have eyes like that – no human, at least. Her mouth, bordered top and bottom by perfect purple lips, opened enough to let the soft tinkle of music escape.

"Kill him," she sang, and so I did.

I drained a few pints of the dead man's blood into the plastic sacs she'd set aside for just that purpose. It never occurred to me to doubt what they were for, I just saw them sitting on the ground and I knew. I assume she recorporealized while I set about my grim task, because there she was when I was through, standing in the darkness with her overcoat open to receive the precious pints. I certainly didn't feel like I'd just killed someone. It was a miracle no one had passed by.

"So what now?" I asked.

"I'm an angel," she said. "You can join me, work with me, if you want to."

"That's it?" I asked, suddenly feeling more sober than I've been my entire life. "All I have to do is say, 'I'm in,' and you'll be my guardian angel?" I thought back on what she'd said, and rational thought returned. "You've removed me from the Symphony; wouldn't it screw with everything if I said no?"

"Well," she said quietly, scrunching her eyebrows together, "I got what I needed, the blood of this wretch, so I suppose I could remove your memories from tonight. You'd probably assume you went to the bar, got drunk and passed out. You wouldn't remember me, you wouldn't remember about the Symphony or anything. And maybe tomorrow or maybe the next day, the cops would get a package in the mail containing knives, covered in blood, with your fingerprints on them."

You know, I'd always heard people use the phrase, "Chills ran up my spine," but I'd never truly known what it meant until then. I also never knew guardian angels stooped to blackmail. I pulled a cigarette out of my jacket and lit it.

"I mean, come on," she smiled, trying to make light of an obviously dark situation. "Right now, your life's a dead end – and I mean that in the nicest way – but it's a dead end with potential. So you can either help me out, or you can go on about your mundane life, however short it will probably be." I stared at the nameless body at my feet. Nicole extended one long leg from beneath her overcoat and with a single expert kick managed to roll it over into the garbage, where it would probably remain unnoticed until the smell attracted attention.

"And come on," she pointed out with a chuckle, "you can hardly claim it was self-defense after draining the corpse's blood."

That certainly put things in a different perspective.

"Well," I said through a tight jaw, "you sure have made it sound like the safe thing to do."

"It is. More importantly, it's the right thing to do."

We stood in silence for a moment. "Of course, there is a downside," she added.

"I knew it!" I shouted, tossing down my cigarette.

"It's really not that big a deal," she said.

"Oh, what, do you want my soul?!" I shouted.

"Only your help," she said calmly. "But when you work with us, you're no longer just a part of the Symphony, you're a performer in it – and you shouldn't do bad things. Like stealing from your boss."

"No bad things," I shot back. "Like, say, killing someone."

"That was different," she snapped. "It served a purpose." Suddenly, Nicole's expression changed. She smiled, slapped me on the back and let out a little laugh. "Cheer up. You're part of the armies of God, you're allowed to have fun, you know."

I shuffled out of the alleyway, shell shocked, rejoining the world. It hadn't changed much in the past five minutes, but I had.

"I didn't think angels were supposed to urge people to kill one another," I said.

"I bet you think we all like to wear white, too."

"Do you?" I asked.

She grimaced, pulling her overcoat tight.

"There's nothing wrong with white," she said.

"Okay," I said, barely cracking a smile, "I accept that you're an angel. And, since I don't happen to have anything better to do, I suppose that the least I can do is hang out with you. Do you like to go dancing?"

Nicole laughed like a crystal chandelier dropping from the sky. "You read my mind," she said. "Lead the way."

Here's something about angels – there's always something they forget to mention. Almost always. I've never had an angel actually lie to me, but there's always all sorts of important stuff that they just don't seem to think is very important until you start shouting and throwing things at them.

We went out dancing to an early-'80s New Wave retro joint. My angel – that is, Nicole, the spooky chick I had every reason to believe was an angel – said she liked that sort of thing. We danced for about an hour, nonstop. It was strangely refreshing to let my consciousness fall away and let my body move to the rhythm, sweating out the fear I'd felt in the alley. Anyway, my brain started to return to normal, and I'd gotten to thinking about what might happen if, as her servant, I did bad things. After all, nobody's perfect. So I steal occasionally. It's never from anyone who doesn't deserve it. And maybe sometimes I lie. Big deal. Who doesn't?

When we got tired, we left the dance floor. As we pushed our way through the crowd, I asked her what would happen if I did bad things.

"Eventually," she said, "bad things would happen to you. That's karma."

"I thought karma was a Buddhist thing. Aren't angels Christian?"

"No more than the universe is Christian," she said. "Karma is a universe thing. If you do bad things, eventually bad things will happen to you."

I nodded. "Karma is the Symphony."

"Sure," she shrugged. "I guess you could look at it that way. If you do bad things in the Symphony, it echoes back on you."

"But working with you, an angel, you said I'm no longer trapped in the Symphony, I'm a player in it. I have some control over it."

She nodded. "I'll teach you some things. Now that you're outside the Symphony, you're already controlling it more than you imagine, but soon you'll be able to do it consciously. Maybe I'll teach you some Songs."

Now, I've spent my entire life looking for loopholes. I'm not a slacker or anything, but loopholes make your life easier and I thought I'd found a big one.

"But if I can control the Symphony, I could prevent these bad things from happening to me."

She smiled at me, wider than I'd seen her smile before. It wasn't a nice smile. It was the smile of a cat looking at a bird in an open, unattended cage.

"It's not that simple," she said slowly. "In Heaven, we look at everyone as an investment. We saved your life, so it'd be nice of you to help us to further the general purpose of selflessness in the world. If you de bad, you're not helping us out and we'd have to withdraw our support."

"My project would lose its funding."

"That's one way to look at it," she admitted.

"And I wouldn't get to hang out with an angel anymore."

"More importantly, you wouldn't have the protection of an angel anymore."

"Protection?" I asked. "From what?"

"When you're out messing with the Symphony, it's good to have protection."

She caught a passing waiter's eye and got a drink from him. Vodka and tonic, I think it was. Celestials, I've found, are big on dramatic pauses. My angel turned back to me, stirring her drink in its little plastic cup with its thin red straw.

"Protection," I nudged her.

"Yes," she said. "Protection."

"I get the impression you're not talking about condoms. Protection from what?"

She sipped from her drink, then one side of her mouth curled up in a little smirk.

"You're not going to like this," she said.

"I'm ready for it," I said, rubbing my palms down my jeans.

"Demons," she said.

I didn't start screaming right away. I built up to it. First, I said, "Demons" back at her, just to make sure I heard right. Then when she nodded, I said it again, but louder, just in case she didn't hear me right. She nodded again and I said it louder, then shut up when I realized that even over the club's triple-decibel sound system people were starting to turn and look at me. By this time, Nicole had pulled me by a belt loop to another, more quiet part of the club.

"Demons," I whispered.

"Demons," she said.

"You forgot to mention the demons part before," I pointed out.

"Hey, when you've got angels, you've got demons," she said. "It's that simple. You make it sound like it's a big deal. Truth is, I seldom have to mess with demons."

"Demons," I said.

"Almost never."

That didn't make me feel any better. "So I should be scared of demons, but not too concerned. But if I can control the Symphony, couldn't I avoid demons and still . . . maybe . . . not exactly do good things all the time?"

Nicole sighed, looking up at a far corner of the room and running a hand through her long, blonde hair.

"Okay," she conceded, "okay. You don't have to do good things all the time. It wouldn't kill you, you know, but you don't have to help every old lady across the street or feed every starving child. Humans have to do things for themselves or what's the point? We're just here to help things along.

"But you can't go around doing openly bad things," she finished.

"Because bad things would happen to me if I did."

"Bad things would happen," she said, sipping her drink.

"And I wouldn't be able to stop it."

"And you wouldn't be able to stop me," she said, and that ended that conversation.

We left through a back door that no one seemed to be paying attention to. Nicole was careful to maneuver her white heels around the puddles of day-old rain that sat stagnating in the back alley.

"Why were you so hot to dance?" I asked.

"It's one of the ways I regenerate Essence," she said. Before I could open my mouth, she continued. "Essence is the energy of the universe. Everything that lives generates Essence, one way or another. You know how marathon runners talk about the 'runner's high'? That's how those kind of people generate Essence. Dancing works for me. We celestials use Essence to control the Symphony, however we can. Remember when that guy flew away from you in the alley? I used Essence to propel him – in fact, I used the last bit I had."

"Angels spend a lot of time in alleyways," I noted.

"Some do," she replied. "I have a house. It has pink trim and a white picket fence. You'll like it there, that's where we're going to end up later tonight. Going dancing gave me just enough Essence to run a quick errand first, so in the meantime I'm going to drop you off with a friend of mine."

"Oh, great," I said. "I just met you, and already I'm getting handed off like an annoying pet."

"You're only annoying when you act annoying," my angel chastised. She stopped at the mouth of the alleyway. "Stand near the curb and tell me when you see a purple car. You can't miss it." I did as requested, and within a few minutes the ugliest, most horrendously – well, purple – car I'd ever seen crept around the corner. I signalled her and she stepped out of the alley, flagging it down like you would a taxi. It stopped instantly, the smell of burnt rubber lingering in the air.

The car's rear door opened, and Nicole pushed me forward toward it.

"He's a friend of mine," she called, retreating back into the alley. "I'll catch up with you guys in a jiff."

I stumbled in, and the ugliest car in the world pulled away from the curb so quickly I fell into the floorboards.

When I crawled up, I counted two other people in the car, both in the front seat. One of them, a woman, was tied and gagged – but safely strapped in on the passenger side. The other person was, of course, driving. He was a large man, and I mean large as in both muscular and fat, with red tufts of hair sticking out from the many holes in his worn leather jacket. We made eye contact in the rear view mirror. He wore wind-worn aviator goggles. He nodded a hello. The girl and I made a much more awkward eye contact as she squirmed around in her seat to get a better look at me. The driver, gently but forcefully, grabbed her bound hands and pushed them back into her lap, turning her back around.

"Hey," I said waving, trying to break the ice.

"So you're Nicole's new friend," the driver said.

"Uh, yeah." The car was positively silent.

"How long you worked with her?" he asked.

"A couple hours," I said.

"Aw, hell," he shouted, slamming the heel of his hand against the steering wheel. "Isn't there anyone around here with any experience nowadays?"

"So, you're an angel?" I asked, not wanting to drift back into painfully uncomfortable silence.

"I'm a Cherub," he corrected.

"What's the difference between a Cherub and a normal angel?"

"Hey, hey," he said, furrowing his brown, "a Cherub is a normal angel. No, scratch that, a Cherub is a kind of normal angel. See, there are different Choirs of angels. I belong to the Choir of Cherubim. Your angel, Nicole, she's a Mercurian."

"So, um, how many angels are there?" I asked the Cherub.

"Lots," he said.

"How many demons are there?" I asked hesitantly.

"Lots and lots. You sure do ask a lot of questions. Let me ask one: Whatever happened to Nicole's other servant, anyway?"

"Dunno," I shrugged.

"She probably killed him. Better yet, let me guess. She's pretty sneaky, I bet she had you kill him so it wouldn't send out any funny vibes, and now she's gone off to use a couple pints of his blood to summon her Archangel."

Just when I was getting to the point that I thought nothing would shock me anymore, blammo.

"She did!" I shouted frantically. "She did! She made me kill this guy, drain out his blood, and then –"

"Hang on, hang on," he shouted over me. I shut up. "Nicole's old servant was a hard-core suck-brain, see? The boy blew our cover to a pair of demons who just about killed us. In a word, he sucked. And everything that sucks has gotta dry up and blow away if we're ever gonna get off this damn planet." Hey – don't look at me, I'm just repeating what he said. "Nicole works for Khalid, the Archangel of Faith, one of the meanest sons-a-bitches in Heaven. No, scratch that; he's not mean, he just doesn't care much about other people."

"Why did she need the blood?"

"You ever tried to get the attention of an Archangel?" he asked sarcastically. "Hey, it's a pain in the ass. Their minds are all over the place, all the time. Even their most favored servants have to go to pretty extreme lengths to get them to listen. In Khalid's case, the blood of your betrayer, added to some stylish little ritual, works nicely."

"So why couldn't I go with her?"

"Wouldn't work," the Cherub said. "You remember when you were a kid, and you'd get in trouble, that if you brought a friend home with you, your parents wouldn't yell at you as bad as they would if you were alone?" I nodded. "It works the opposite way with Archangels."

"So what are we doing here?"

"We're the decoy," he said, rolling down his window to spit out into the street. "Inviting an Archangel to tea can make big ripples in the Symphony, so we're driving around sending up little Essence signal flares that say, 'I'm here,' so the demons won't figure out what we're up to."

I held my head in my hands and rocked it back and forth. "If you don't mind," I said, "could you back up just a bit and tell me what's going on? I mean, the current plan in action?"

"Nicole, she's uncovered this painting from, well, I wanna say it's from the middle ages, but I don't remember good paint being widely available back then. Let's just say it's old. And in the hands of an artist, a true artist, this particular painting can be used to trap a celestial."

"Trap?"

"Yeah. If the celestial's in his presence, the artist can paint the demon – or, I guess, angel – into the image, trapping him inside there, undetectable, until either someone else is painted in his place, or a different artist paints over it, freeing the prisoner. Of course, both sides have been looking for it for awhile – through private Japanese galleries, through the Vatican basement, the usual places."

"Where'd she find it?"

"I don't know," he said. "But we've got it now. We're supposed to arrange a delivery, the only problem being that the artist she'd set up to work on trapping our victim is, well, indisposed."

"Indisposed?"

"Dead, actually. He overdosed this morning, real suspicious-like. We suspect the Diabolicals."

"The demons," I said.

"Yeah, them. Your predecessor ratted on us."

"Hell, give me a brush," I said, "I'm on it."

"No, no, no, it doesn't work for just anyone. You have to get an artist attuned to the painting, which takes a whole lot of time and effort – not to mention finding the right chump, first."

"So, what now?" I asked. "Where are we going?"

"No place," he said, "we're just driving around right now. Times like this, I wish I had some Ofanim around."

"Ofanim?"

"They're the Symphony's agents of motion. Each Choir of angel has its own special way of perceiving the Symphony, its own resonance with reality. Ofanim have the knack of motion. They never stop. If there's a way to carry on, they'll instinctively know what it is."

"Sounds cool."

"Yeah, it's useful."

"What about you?" I asked. "What do you do?"

"I'm a Cherub – we protect things. Like Patricia here. She's an important girl." The Cherub patted his passenger's knee as we pulled up to a red light, but she stayed staring straight ahead. "I'm attuned to her, see? Just like that artist was attuned to that painting. She's ignoring me right now 'cause she knows it drives me crazy, but no matter where she goes or what she does, I'll know it because that's my resonance."

"It doesn't seem like she's going anywhere right now."

He winced. "Yeah, that's the problem. Times like this, when there're demons crawling around every door, you gotta take a few precautions. When I say I'm attuned to her, it's not just that I have some connection to her, it's that, literally, she's a part of me." He reached over with a fat, hairy hand and turned her face toward him. She whipped her head back and forth until he grabbed her jaw and held it tight. When their eyes met, she stopped struggling. "I love her more than I love anything else in the whole Symphony, and even though she hates me for doing this when things get a little tense, I have to."

"Why?"

"If I didn't, and something happened to her, it'd destroy me – literally. It's not that angels are under strict guidelines, we just have very rigid natures. I'm supposed to protect her, see? It's my nature. And allowing anything – anything at all – to happen to her, that would throw my resonance with the Symphony out of whack.

"The more distant you get from the Symphony," the Cherub said, his eyes narrowing and his voice growing low, "the more you get to thinking that maybe there's something else out there, right? Maybe there's a greater good besides the one you've been protecting all this time. Maybe all your pallies on the other side were right.

"And then you Fall." He illustrated this by slamming a fist into an open hand, and I jumped so high I hit my head on the ceiling of the car. The Cherub laughed. Patricia did too, coughing loudly through her gag.

"But don't get all freaked out," he said, pulling away from the stoplight. "We've managed to stay away from the demons so far."

And of course, it was just about that instant that the little red sports car slammed into us, spinning us across the street and into a telephone pole.

Speak of the devil.

When I gathered up my brains, the driver's seat was empty and Patricia looked pretty damn groggy. She had a nasty gash on her forehead, bleeding the way head wounds tend to bleed. I glanced out the window. The sportscar, which looked surprisingly undamaged, was parked across the street. Two figures strode toward our vehicle. I could see the Cherub standing between us and them.

"Not like you drive an inconspicuous car, man," said the first figure, a thin rakish guy in a black suit, smoking two cigarettes from one hand and holding a long, sharp knife in the other. He took a deep drag, threw his head back and let out a cloud of smoke that almost obscured the sky.

The other figure was huge. Much larger than the Cherub, I was scared to see. Leaning forward, I started untying Patricia. They were good knots, it took almost a minute. I could hear fighting outside while I struggled. Once her hands were free, she worked on her feet while I removed her gag. Before I could say anything, she bolted out of the car. Before I could react in any way, she started screaming.

Goddammit, I thought to myself. Now I'm going to have to get out of the car.

I got out of the car. Patricia was holding the Cherub, and he was coughing blood up all over her. She clutched his chest as it moved up and down its final couple of times. I could just barely make out a misshapen lump of mess that must've been the larger figure, because the thin guy was on me in a flash, grabbing my right hand and biting down hard. I could feel the joint pop, and I thought to myself, "Surely he didn't just bite my thumb off." I looked down at my hand. He'd bitten my thumb off. Blood dripped down his chin from a vicious, savage smile.

Obviously, I thought to myself through a shock-addled brain, this is a demon.

"Where's the painting?" he shouted in slow, measured tones, spitting my blood all over my face.

"I don't know," I said. He slapped me around, and through it all the only thing that registered was Patricia mumbling her mantra to the dying Cherub – "This is only a vessel, this is only a vessel."

"You have no idea how bad my day's been," he said, kicking me in the side after I fell to the ground. Luckily, he got tired of abusing me and decided to check out the car. It didn't take him long to get around to looking in the trunk, from which he pulled out a long, flat package wrapped in brown paper.

"Oh, this is sweet," he said, kissing it. Even reclined on the pavement, I could see a big bloody lip-print on the package as the demon walked past me, like a love note from a demented girlfriend. He walked calmly over to his car, put it in the passenger's seat and sped away, leaving Patricia and me shaking and sobbing. Just a few hours before, I kept thinking, I'd been happily drunk.

A glowing shape appeared out of the night sky, drifting down to us. Nicole coalesced into her corporeal form, seething.

"He got the painting," Patricia told her between sobs.

My angel picked me up, threw me into the Cherub's car and peeled away from the scene of carnage, leaving Patricia to cradle her angel's body like a modern-day Pieta.

"Did Tariel fill you in?" she asked as we flew down the highway like, well, like a bat out of hell. I shook my head, still a little weak from blood loss. "Tariel," she prompted. "The Cherub."

"Yeah," I nodded, shaking my head to stay awake. "Artist, Archangel, Choirs."

"Good. I figured he'd give you the lowdown." We drove a few moments in silence. "Sorry about your thumb, I can fix that when I get some Essence back."

"What happens to Tariel?"

"Oh, I suppose he'll wake up in Heaven any time now, feeling pretty low. He must've really gotten his ass kicked by the big demon, but I noticed the other guy wasn't exactly standing up. Soon, he'll earn enough Essence to make another corporeal vessel for himself, then he'll be back, prowling the streets again. And don't worry about Patricia. That's a co-dependent relationship if I've ever seen one; it'll do her some good to be free from him for a little while. Tariel'll be back soon, and he'll have her happily tied up in some basement again. She says she doesn't like it, but I think she's grown accustomed. Humans can get used to almost anything."

"What did you get from your Archangel?"

"A little time. And because I asked him nicely, he gave me back my itty-bitty gun."

"Your what?"

"It's a tiny little pistol, with a blessed chamber just large enough to hold a single holy bullet. It's not very accurate, but if you get a good enough shot off you can take out a demon. If you're lucky. My Archangel -- Khalid – took it away from me because he felt I was relying on it too much. He gave it back to me for finding the rat in our little organization, my old servant." We were both silent for a moment. "I suppose Tariel told you about that, too." I didn't say anything. "Well, anyway, we've got that going for us and only one more demon to hunt down, as far as anyone knows. But no more miracles tonight, I'm out of Essence."

"Couldn't you have asked for more Essence from your Archangel?"

"When you ask for more from the Archangels," she said as though reciting a popular saying, "they expect that much more from you." I must've looked puzzled, because she added, "And that can be bad. But – if we can make it until sunrise," she said, coaxing the dead angel's car off the interstate, "we're in the clear."

"What happens at sunrise?"

"I get some Essence back. I blew what I had summoning my Archangel, but every morning, as the sun creeps over the horizon, angels recover some of their spent Essence. Empowered by the energy of the Symphony itself, I can make quick work of the demon. Lucifer's forces depend on their numbers, not their strength."

"And if not?"

Nicole laughed. "If not, then we have to hope our demon gets close enough to be shot with my itty-bitty gun before he tears both our heads off."

"And if that doesn't work?"

"Then I'll see you in Heaven," she said, whipping the car into her driveway. As she got out of the car, I grabbed her by the wrist.

"Wait a second," I shrieked. "How do we know he's not in there waiting for us?"

"We don't," she said. "In fact, he probably is. I gave him a key the last time I saw him."

"Don't you have some kind of built-in demon detector or something?"

She shrugged. "No more than demons have built-in angel detectors. But if it makes you feel better –" she closed her eyes and put a hand on her forehead "– mmm, nope, no demons here."

"Are you sure?"

"No," she smiled. "Come on."

"Damn it," she said whipping through the door, grabbing a plastic-wrapped dress hanging from a hook in the hallway and whirling it around the room. "Laundries. They call this white? I knew I should've picked it up myself. I'd have made them do it right."

"Hi, honey," said the demon, grinding his teeth as he emerged from the darkness of her kitchen. "Glad you could drop by."

She dropped her laundry. "You again?" she asked. He walked toward us, out of the shadows. He had his knife out again, which implied to me that he was out of Essence or he'd have tried to fry us when we walked in. Inwardly, I felt proud of myself for catching on to how things were done around here.

"This is going to be fun," he said. "I haven't done anything like this in, oh, half an hour or so."

"Try me," she spat.

"Come on, baby," he leered, lashing out with his empty hand and grabbing her arm, pulling her close. "Give me a kiss and call me Jesus."

Faster than I could even see, she pulled the itty-bitty gun from her coat and made an itty-bitty hole in his chest.

"You are . . . the biggest bitch," he said, his grin freezing on his face as he fell to his knees. She planted a white spiked heel on his bleeding chest and gently pushed him backward to the ground, so he wouldn't fall butter-side down, as it were, and bloody her carpet.

"See you later, pumpkin," she said, blowing him a kiss, and with one great heave his vessel expired.

"That was anti-climactic," I said, trembling.

"I can gut him later, if you'd like. I'll probably do it anyway. It would give me pleasure."

I shuddered and shoved my bloody hand in my pocket.

"Go home and get some sleep," she said, turning to me and reloading her tiny pistol. The bullet chanted whispers of eternal devotion as she slid it into the firing sepulcher. "Tomorrow's a busy day. You have to pick up some blood from a friend of mine, and then find me another mediocre artist with an unconventional reputation. I'm sure there are a lot to choose from in this town."

"But why do I have to do the footwork, here? I thought you were supposed to be my guardian angel."

Nicole laughed. "My, you are just the cutest thing. I've got to keep you around. Sure, you could think of me as a guardian angel, but I'm not your guardian angel. Actually, it's more like you're my guardian human.

"Now go," she said, fixing me with a hard, cold stare, "do what I say."

"Good things," I muttered, thinking about my predecessor.

"Only the best," her voice lilted. "Now get this body out of here, and don't get any blood on the carpet. It's a foul creature we disposed of this evening."

"He seemed to think he was your boyfriend," I pointed out.

"He was," she said, staring at the corpse. "A long time ago." Nicole looked up at me with a smirk that might almost be called evil. "Ex-boyfriends turn up in the lousiest places," she explained. "Now please, get to work."

"Sure thing," I said, slowly growing resigned to my fate. It couldn't be said that I hadn't started a new life.

I looked down at the demon's twisted corpse. His death grin leered up at me. In a way, I had a certain sympathy for him. He didn't mean to be evil, it was just his nature. Suddenly, I didn't feel like turning over a new leaf by handling another dead body on my birthday.

"I'm going to get some sleep first," I said, zipping up my jacket and heading quickly for the door.

"Fine. Call the police and see if dead-boy's car has turned up parked in a handicapped space or something. It'd be just like him. We – and by 'we' I of course mean 'you' – can break into the police impound tonight and steal back the painting. And go to the fine arts library on campus while you're out. Find another artist we can con into trapping us a demon."

"Anything else?" I asked.

"Have a happy birthday," she grinned through perfect, pearly teeth.

"Sure thing," I said, stumbling out the doorway. I was beginning to have some sympathy for my predecessor, too. The pre-dawn air of the city felt clean and clear. I stretched my arms toward the horizon, yawning, yearning for the bright dream of the sunrise, the temporary rest of freedom.

"And would you take my laundry back?" she shouted through the door. "I can't believe they call this white."


Next: A DARK DREAM

The demons' side of the story.

or, "Same Song, Darker Verse"

Copyright © 1997 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved.


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