“I curse you for what you’ve done! For your inability to feel pity or remorse, I curse you to know unfathomable pain. Without mercy! Without cessation! You will suffer as no creature has ever suffered!”
Ariel screamed in bitter agony. Those words twisted in her mind like a serpent, twining about her arms and legs, making them heavy. Unbearable. A foreign weight dragged her from the heavens in a violent whirlwind, down toward the mortal plane.
It felt like the hand of a god, tearing her from the skies.
She reached out, trying to stop her fall, but only contacted with rushing air that bathed her body in a strange pelting storm. The savage winds whipped at her hair, her wings, and howled in her ears like vicious hellhounds, ripping the souls of the damned from her side.
What was happening?
None of this made sense. Every part of her ached and pulsed in waves of crashing sensation. She was a Nasaru—an elite Arel who was born into her position. A resolute warrior whose calling was to stay far from the mortal realm, where their licentiousness could tempt her, except for those brief moments when she was commanded to find dead warriors to return to life so that they could fight in earthly battles that were denied to her species.
Her job was to protect the order of the universe. To defend the primal forces. She was not to know pain.
That was for mortals to bear.
Yet pain ripped down her spine, and took the breath from a body that needed no breath, made a chest heave that should not heave, a stomach churn that had never churned before.
Blackness surrounded her in a swirling funnel. Deprived of her sight and hearing, Ariel reached out with her other senses, trying to find some kind of answer for this. A mixture of odors assailed her—the charred stench of fear, the sulfur of hell, and worse, the bittersweet smell of human flesh.
Before, all these had been muted to her. Now they assaulted her in a pungent bouquet that almost overwhelmed her with a primitive vitality that didn’t belong to her world, or understanding.
For good reason. To expose a Nasaru to such could taint them, and should they turn …
There was no power to stop them. They were the fiercest of warriors, who were virtually invincible.
It made them a prize for the dark powers and it was why they were never to venture to this realm.
Suddenly, she slammed against a cold, hard ground, her body throbbing in a way she couldn’t fathom.
What had happened to her?
Fury tore through her as she looked about, trying to make sense of it.
The buzzing in her ears gave way to the gentle call of birds frolicking in the forest. But the sound soon dulled until all she could hear was an occasional bird’s cry, and the rustle of a breeze through bright late-autumn leaves. Even her heartbeat faded until she could no longer hear it.
Ariel pushed herself up, but quickly fell again, her limbs shaking with unfamiliar heaviness. Her pale hair tumbled around her shoulders, hanging in her face. She tried to breathe through the heavy weight, but her breath caught in the strands suffocating her.
What the hell was this?
Suddenly, a hand snatched back the mass of hair.
Ariel looked up into the face of hatred and she knew the source of her fate. She’d seen this sorceress before. “What have you done to me?” Her throat stung from the use of vocal cords that hadn’t existed ten minutes ago.
The old, withered woman glared at her with dark, hate-filled eyes. “You stole from me my most precious possession. I begged you for mercy and still you took my son. ’Tis time you learned what it means to have your heart torn from your breast!”
That unfamiliar rage coursed through her, even more ferociously this time. Never had she known the like. Ariel was a creature of the highest source and they weren’t supposed to lose their temper.
Yet her body responded to the woman’s presence with a burning fury that made her yearn for retaliation. She wanted to hurt her.
More than that, she wanted …
She didn’t understand the bitter, awful feeling. Nor did she like it.
“Return me to my place!”
The old woman’s laugh echoed around her, into the trees of the forest surrounding them. “I cannot undo my spell. Only you can.”
“What do you mean?” Ariel stared at her in utter disbelief. “I can’t stay here.” She knew nothing of survival in their world.
People died here!
A prayer came to her lips, but she knew that wouldn’t help. Free will gave all beings sovereignty over their existence, and unless it interfered with matters of life and death, nature, even evil nature, was given its due course.
Damn them all for it!
This wasn’t her realm. Her kind couldn’t survive in this hideous place where men ate their own.
Even their young.
It was forbidden! Not to mention the fact that she didn’t want to be here.
Among them. Petty creatures like the crone before her, who cared nothing for anyone other than themselves. They lived to sow strife and pain.
Truly, she loathed them all.
Looking up at the clear gray sky above them, Ariel knew she must return to her domain before the taint of mortalness damaged her eternally and left its stink upon her.
Turned her into the pitiless crone before her and made her every bit as cold and unfeeling.
“What must I do?” Ariel asked in desperation.
The smile that curved the crone’s lips sent a shiver down her spine. “You must do as I did with my son. You must love with all your heart, then watch what you love most die horribly and in pain. Hold him in your arms while he struggles for life, and cry in misery as you’re helpless to stop the angel that comes to steal his soul after he draws that final breath. Only then will you be free.”
Are you serious? She was being punished for doing her job?
Ariel shook her head in denial. “I grieve for your loss, but I have no choice about whom I take from this world. I’m given orders that I have to follow.”
Whenever a particularly skilled warrior died, the Nasaru were sent after them to recruit them to their ranks as a nekoda. It was a noble calling for her son. But she wasn’t allowed to tell that to the crone.
The old woman laughed bitterly. “And now you dance to my command.” As she walked a small circle around her, dried, fallen leaves dragged crisply under the full ragged hem of her skirt. “I know you don’t understand grief. You’re not capable of it. But you will, little reaper. You will!”
Then she was gone.
Ariel looked around the forest. No trace remained of the woman. If she could dream, she’d blame it on that, but she never slept. Nor did she feel stiff, dry grass beneath her hands, the cool breath of air on her cheeks, nor the heat of the sun on human skin.
Yet she felt those things now, and by that she knew this was real. A true waking nightmare!
“You can’t leave me here!” She couldn’t be found by her enemies! An Arel alone was a dead one.…
On trembling limbs, she pushed herself up.
Lifting her arms above her head, she commanded herself to rise. To fly.
What had always come so effortlessly refused to obey her now.
Her golden wings were gone.
I’m mortal. That terrifying thought shot through her mind with a dizzying fright that spun her head and brought tears to her eyes.
How could this be?
She couldn’t fall in love. It wasn’t possible. That didn’t happen to creatures like her. They were never to be so tainted.
“Surrender yourself to the curse. It’ll be easier if you do.”
Her heart pounding, she spun around at the words and faced a white wolf. Its eyes glowed red.
Of course, it would be. What else would stalk her here in this realm?
Those evil little trolls were ever about to tempt and torment those who lived here. But she wasn’t so stupid, and she’d never fall for their tricks.
She would never forsake her oath or her station.
“Leave me in peace. I’ve no use for you.”
It moved forward. With each step, its form changed until it became a winged shadow creature. One that smelled as foul as its deeds. Only the glowing red eyes remained the same. “You are no longer in my world. Or yours. You are in their world. They will fear you. Beat you. Destroy you. Then where will you be?”
Ariel lifted her chin with a confidence she didn’t feel. “If they kill me here, I’ll return to where I belong. If I surrender myself to the curse, you’ll drag me to your master. I don’t belong to your infernal prison, and I refuse to damn myself. You’ll never own any part of me.”
Too many of her kind had fallen to them. She refused to become a member of the Irin. To be marked and hunted by her own brethren while she fought for the dark lords who would abuse her for their own sick amusement.
That wasn’t her way. She would never succumb. Not for anything.
His evil laugh rang out. He touched her chin with his icy, chafed fingers. The coldness burned her skin, causing her to flinch. “My master will give me much for the soul of a Nasaru warrior, especially one who serves Michael. Come, pet, be nice and sacrifice yourself for me. I promise you a cooler spot to bathe in if you surrender now.”
She glared at him, her new body trembling in fear and fury over his offer.
The name flashed through her mind and she realized some of her powers still remained. But not enough to combat this particular demon, who delighted in mischief and discord, whose evil power was second only to that of Kadar, the king of all evil.
A cold tremor of panic swept through her.
She clenched her shaking hands together, knowing her fear gave him strength.
And that, too, she would never do.
Standing strong, she glared at him. “I deny your call. Leave me and return to your hole where you kneel in servitude.”
His eyes flashed, radiating heat and malice. “You will be mine, fair one. And I will gladly serve you to my master.” He curled his shadowed form up into a ball and drifted around her head. The rancid odor of burning flesh and sulfur choked her. “How long can you remain true to your cause now that you’re corrupted by human flesh and emotion?”
She opened her mouth to deny him, but as soon as she did, the demon encompassed her head, choking her with its stench. The black thickness filled her body.
Ariel fought for breath. Her lungs burning, she fell to her knees.
Still the demon remained inside her, blotting her thoughts, her will.
“You’ll be ours, Nasaru.” Belial laughed. “And with you, I will earn my freedom and burn this fucking world to the ground!”
Copyright © 2022 by Sherrilyn McQueen