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“Ah, would yer ever piss off, ya wee gobshite! Yer giving a fella headache!” Lucas threw his hands up and blew a raspberry as he leapt from his bar stool. The bald-headed youth stood three inches taller than him and sported a nasty-looking battle scar on his scalp, but the most intimidating thing about him was his aftershave—which smelled like a crate-full of cats. He was also as high as a kite and had been making a nuisance of himself for more than twenty minutes now. No one in the pub could hear themselves think. Lucas had finally taken offence when the lad proclaimed he’d lost his job because of ‘all the Poles coming over.’
The feckin eejit!
Of all the many things to get on Lucas’s wick, racism was among the worst. If people could just embrace their different coloured armpits and funny ways of speaking, the world would be a better place. Tribalism had lost its use the moment the first caveman learned he could hunt more food than he needed and trade it with the funny-looking fella down by the cut for that lovely looking stick he had.
“Watch your mouth, Paddy,” said the lad, unsteady on his feet but brimming with testosterone. “You ain’t in Belfast now.”
Lucas’s accent derived from Dublin, but there seemed little to gain by informing the lad. He did make a point, however, of standing toe to toe with the him. “Is there a group of folk you don’t loathe, lad? Peculiar, because you’re quite the mongrel yourself.”
“The hell you talkin’ about, Mick?”
“Name’s Lucas. Mick must be drinking down another pub with Paddy.”
“Come on now, gentlemen!” The landlord leaned over the bar, a red-headed familiar sort of chap about a foot shorter than any man ought to be. With dusky skin and plump oval cheeks, he oddly resembled a mole. Small round spectacles perched on a long nose completed the look. He wagged a chubby finger at them now like a disapproving aunt. “Put the aggro to bed or take it outside. People are trying to relax.”
Lucas waved a hand dismissively and told the man not to fret. “The lad and I are just having a wee discourse, guv’na. Did you know his ancestors include Germanic nomads, Romani travelers, and ironically, Polish settlers?”
The lad spat, partly down his own shirt. His pupils rolled about angrily, all over the place. “You want me to plant you right here, mate? I-I ain’t no sodding Pole.”
Lucas folded his arms and sighed dramatically. “You think genealogy is grounds for violence? Let me assure you, every single person drinking in this fine establishment tonight is a slopping cauldron of ingredients. Far too late in the game for ‘purity’ to still be a thing. And no, Polish people are not responsible for you losing your job, of that you can be sure.”
Despite his defiance—the clenching of his jaw and fists—the lad appeared unsettled. When he spoke again, his tone was less sure. “Y-Yeah? And what would you know about it?”
Lucas reached out and pinched the lad’s earlobe, so rapidly the lad stumbled and fingered his ear as if he feared he’d been cut. “Just taking a peek,” Lucas explained, holding up his hands innocently. “I can now confirm, with joyful alacrity, that you lost your job because you called in sick two Mondays out of every five, and on the ones you dragged yourself in for, you did so either drunk from the previous night’s session, or hungover so impressively that you were asleep on the job. Shame, because the gaffer thought you’d have made a good mechanic. That would have made your parents take notice, aye?”
“W-What? How do you…?”
Lucas shrugged and retrieved his beer from the bar. “I know it because you know it, lad, so stop kidding yourself that anyone else is to blame for your screw-ups. You’re an addict. I sympathise, truly, but unlike me, you have to hold down a job. Perhaps you should work on being less of a dryshite?”
The pub’s other drinkers were agog, and their chatting ceased. If a tumbleweed had been nearby, it would have rolled across the floorboards then. The mole-like landlord stood back from the bar as if ready to run for the phone, but Lucas remained unconcerned. He was in no mood to play nice. Not tonight.
The lad’s eyes darted left and right, as if searching for a way out—or hidden cameras. “Y-You ain’t right in the head, mate. I’d lay you out, but you ain’t worth the trouble.”
Lucas grunted. “Biggest understatement you’ll ever make. Now leave a man to his thinking.”
The lad showed he had at least some sense remaining—he stomped away.
A relieved whistle sounded behind the bar and the landlord stepped back up to the pumps. “You had a lucky escape there, pal. Jake don’t usually walk away.”
Lucas took a deep swig from his pint, then said, “One of us had a lucky escape, aye.”
“How did you know all that stuff anyway?” The landlord eyed him dubiously. “Felt like you were about to tell his fortune.”
“I like to take an interest. People aren’t so difficult to understand when you know what flaps to lift and where to sniff. I’ve been around long enough to smell a turd pretty quick.”
“Huh, fair enough. Want another?” He nodded at Lucas’s pint.
“Aye, keep her filled. Don’t want to see the bar through the bottom if I can help it.”
“Tough life, fella. It ain’t easy being me, let’s just leave it at that. But the thing is, I can’t much remember the last few days. There’s a black hole where my mind should be—and don’t you dare make an Irish joke.”
The landlord chuckled and placed a fresh glass beneath the taps, pulling the lever gently. The way he did it without looking showed his time behind the pumps had not been short. The cleanliness of the bar also testified to his tenure. “Well, you weren’t blacked-out here, pal, if it helps. I’ve never seen you until tonight, although you do seem familiar.”
“Aye, we drunks all look alike.” Lucas took the fresh pint and started on it right away. Crisp and cold. Heaven in a glass.
Ah, sweet beer. Mankind’s greatest creation.
He placed the glass back on the bar and glanced at Jake who was brooding over by the pool table with a pair of cronies. They each glared at Lucas with the same bloodshot eyes, but his desire for a scrap had passed, so he returned his attention back to the landlord. “You get much trouble from their ilk?”
The landlord thumbed his spectacles higher up his long nose and raised an eyebrow. “What d’you reckon?”
“I reckon people used to be friendlier. A tavern was a place for men to pat each other on the back after a hard day’s graft. Now the kicks don’t stop until your teeth are gone and your brains are leaking out through your lugholes.”
The landlord plucked another glass from beneath the bar and started polishing it. “What are you? Early forties?”
“Sure,” said Lucas. “Let’s assume I am.”
“Well you talk like an old man. Cheer up and concentrate on your own worries. I know how to run a pub, and this is a nice place.” He peered over at Jake and his pals. “Mostly.”
And it was no lie. The lounge was poky and dated, with horse brasses hanging from the peeling walls, but it was cosy too—a refuge from the wind, rain, and worries of the world. Shadows danced on the walls, cast from fireplaces at either end, and old cushions and rickety stools radiated a sense of history—generations of drinkers coming and going with time.
“How long you had this place?” he asked.
“Five or six years now. Spent most my life drifting about so thought it was time to put down some roots. Let the drifters come to me.”
“Yer not wed?”
The landlord chuckled. “Me? No… Perhaps in another life, but I’ve never found a woman who will have me. How about you?”
“I’ve the opposite problem. Women want to have me, but I won’t be had.”
“A fine problem to have. Enjoy your drink. That’ll be three-twenty.”
Lucas tossed a blue note and a handful of silver shrapnel on the bar. “For the conversation,” he said.
The landlord thanked him and poured himself something red, then moved to serve a drinker at the opposite end of the bar. Lucas appreciated the return to silence, for when Jake had started performing, it had shunted away his thoughts until there’d been no choice but to confront the drugged-up fool. Truthfully, the interruption had done little damage—his mind was a grey sky without a cloud in sight. He’d never had a blackout before, even after a long lifetime of boozing. This was a new experience for him.
Something had happened.
His most recent memory was of waking up in a pile of rubbish behind this pub. As places went to awake confused, a pub was about the best-case scenario, but he’d prefer to know how he’d got there. He didn’t even know the name of this place—and that just seemed outright rude. He wasn’t used to feeling lost or confused. That wasn’t what he was about. If anybody said anything about Lucas, it would be that he was a fella what always knew the score. Not tonight though. Tonight, he was as lost as mouse tits on a whale.
“Hello, you okay?”
Lucas turned to find a young woman of early twenties standing beside him. She wore a bright smile beneath a small nose, and her crystalline-blue eyes were at odds with her inky-black hair—which her tawny eyebrows betrayed as a dye job. Lucas was an attractive man—when he deigned to be—but he wasn’t at his best tonight, so the girl’s approach was a mild surprise. He returned her smile, flashing his perfect teeth and enjoying the shiver he sent through the girl. “How are you this fine night, fair lass?”
“I am good, thank you.” She possessed an accent. Polish? No… something else. “My name is Kveta, but people call me Vetta.”
“And I’m guessing you’re from the green and pleasant lands of… Slovakia? Am I right?”
“Yes! How did you know?”
“I’ve been there many times, a land of green pastures and ancient woodland, with a half-decent ice hockey team too. The women there possess the same natural beauty as the land, and you are no exception. If you were a landscape, you would be a gentle stream through a field of violets.”
The girl blushed, and it made her gentle eyes even more striking against the darkness of her hair. “Your words are very nice, and I also want to say thank you.” Her voice shaky and nervous. “Jake is always nasty about us, but you tell him he is wrong. My friends say you are welcome to come drink.”
Lucas glanced over at a group of burly men in the corner. Unlike Jake and co., they didn’t glare at him or sneer. Instead, they waved merrily and welcomed him over. “Cześć!”
It was difficult to refuse the company of a fine lady and jovial men, so Lucas didn’t even try. He told Vetta he’d be delighted to join her, and he went and took a seat with her friends, making fast acquaintances before delighting them all by reciting each of their names perfectly. They were a mix of Polish and Slovakian, with one Romanian for flavour. They spoke English well, though it would not have been a problem if they did not, and they refused to let Lucas buy his drinks all night. They treated him like an old friend, and he chatted with them merrily until turfing out time.
It was shortly after that when things turned nasty.
* * *
Lucas bade his drinking buddies farewell shortly after last call. Most of them lived together in a house within walking distance so they set off on foot, leaving via the pub’s front porch. Vetta and the Romanian—Gheorghe was his name—lived in flats elsewhere but were yet to leave, both wanting to stay behind and get another drink. The landlord was having none of it though. “I’m not losing sleep for the likes of you rabble,” he said brusquely, before diffusing any offence with a grin.
Lucas could have drunk another ten pints if allowed, still unsettled by his bizarre memory loss, but he didn’t argue with the fella. Instead, he reached over the bar and thanked him for his hospitality. “What’s the name of this place again, guv’na?”
“The Black Sheep.” The landlord wiped his hands off on his shirt and accepted the handshake, wringing Lucas’s hand vigorously with a smile.
Lucas was about to return the smile when he was jolted backwards. He snatched his hand away, head spinning.
The landlord’s plump hand still hovered above the bar, and he seemed a little disorientated as well. “You catch a shock or something, pal?”
“Um, yeah. Got a case of the banshees for a second there. I’m having an odd night.”
The landlord frowned. “Maybe you should see a doctor.”
Vetta grabbed Lucas by the arm and startled him. “You come?” she said, nodding toward the door.
“We go find more drinking,” shouted Gheorgie, staggering about in all directions and colliding with chairs. “Da?”
Unsettled, Lucas nodded. “Aye, okay, aye, um yeah, let’s take this show on the road. Erm…” he turned to the landlord one last time, trying to make sense of that strange feeling he’d just experienced. “What’s your name, guv’na?”
The landlord swallowed and thumbed his glasses. “My name? Oh, it’s Julian, pleased to meet you…?”
“Name’s Lucas. May the road rise up to meet you, my friend. Um…” His mind spun for a moment, leaving him without words. Why did his head feel so hollow? “G-Good night, guv’na. Yeah. Okay then. Bye.”
Lucas stumbled towards the pub’s rear exit while Vetta clutched his elbow. Gheorghie had already made it outside, and he put his arm around both of them when they joined him in the alleyway. “Lucas, Lucas. You come to my uncle’s restaurant, yes? He make the most amazing meat rolls. Pork, yes? Beautiful. Mwah!” He kissed his fingers. “You come?”
“I shall do me very best, ya wee dote, but right now I think we should call it a night. Any more piss in you, and you’ll be pouring pints from your pecker!”
Gheorghie seemed to accept that his sobriety was no longer tenable, so he bid them farewell and proceeded to sing his way unintelligibly into the distance. The night was mild but wet, as it had been raining hard earlier, but that rain was now only a refreshing drizzle on their faces. A full moon pierced the oily-black sky like a shiny silver coin and gave everything an ethereal sheen. Lucas would have called it a fine night if not for the overflowing bins and the cheeky odour of piss. Not to mention he had gaps in his memory. While his jaunty personality was mostly put on, a way to keep people from knowing him truly, tonight it was at complete odds with how he was feeling inside. Despair clung to him, and his attempts to shed it only made it dig its claws deeper.
“I must get taxi,” said Vetta, blushing enough to make the subtext obvious, that he should come with her. Lucas could happily waste several hours in the girl’s company, but…
“I shall see you off, lass,” he said regretfully. There was no other way. Rumpy-pumpy was not what he needed right now. What he needed was answers.
Her face fell, innocent eyes wounded. “Oh. Are you sure?”
Lucas wished he could explain it to her, make her understand why sleeping with him would be such a colossally bad idea, but fairy tales would not salve the girl’s ego. All he could do was sugar-coat the truth. “I would love nothing more than to hop in a taxi and expand the boundaries of our relationship, lass. Heaven knows, shameful is my default setting…” He took a moment to steel himself, to double-down on the choice he was making. The way she was looking at him now, so beautiful and mortified at once, made him want to reconsider—but he could not. He couldn’t take the risk. He dropped his accent and spoke plainly. She deserved better than the theatrics. “You are too kind a soul to get entangled with the likes of me, Vetta, truly. And, quite honestly, I’m too old for you.”
Too old by far.
“Not so old,” she muttered. “You are handsome man.”
Lucas chuckled. “Aye, I am at that, aren’t I? But I’m also a thumbtack. I draw blood, no matter how delicately someone tries to handle me. Your innocence is not something I am willing to remove. I have enough to atone for already.”
A slight breeze lifted her inky hair around her face as she peered at him, adding a supernatural flair to her beauty. “My innocence?”
Lucas sighed and brushed a strand of that black hair from her face. The brief contact gave him a flash of who she was, and he wanted more. It was like having a mouthful of tender chicken while starving, before having the rest snatched cruelly away. And yet, if he touched her again, his resolve would crumble to dust, and he would fall down a well of poor decisions. He saw a sister in her life, uncovering worms in the soil. He saw a plump mother constantly cooking in a small cottage. He saw no father but felt her longing for one. Yet, there was no resentment or anger. Very little of the thorny brambles he found inside of most people’s hearts.
“Innocence is something you have that many do not, Vetta. Now let’s see you to that taxi.”
She sighed, but despite his rebuff, reached out and took his hand, a gesture he was forced to avoid, leaving her looking even more hurt. He longed to reach out and take her arm and apologise, but that only left him confused. Loneliness was the meat of his existence, but tonight, it felt like a wound raw and bleeding. What was wrong with him? Why did he feel so… odd. And why did he care about what this girl thought about him?
As they walked through the alleyway, a whit-woo whistled behind them. They turned and saw several shapes emerge from an alcove opposite the pub—three in total—Jake and his two cronies. The whit-woos turned into a mocking rendition of Danny Boy that was surprisingly tuneful.
Lucas moved Vetta behind him. “Stand back, lass. These chancers are about to do something stupid.”
Jake had been the one whistling, but he stopped now and glared at Lucas. “Looks like you pulled, Mick. You got a real hard on for the Poles, dontcha!”
“She’s Slovakian,” Lucas informed the lad coolly. One of Jake’s pals clutched a pool cue and began stoking its length as he leered at Vetta. Lucas made a point of looking the lad in the eyes. “You so much as spit in her direction, and I’ll take yer wee bollocks and swap ‘em with your eyes.”
The lad snickered, but there was also a glint of uncertainty in his eyes.
Jake took a swipe at Lucas, an open-handed slap designed to humiliate, but it missed by mere inches when Lucas took a step backwards.
“Ooh, you’re a fast one!” Jake chuckled—then snarled. “Not fast enough though!”
It beggared belief, but Lucas didn’t see the next blow coming. It crunched beneath his chin and whipped his head back. He was more surprised than hurt, but the assault left him off-balance, so when a pool cue suddenly cracked against his skull, the world inexplicably tilted.
“Christ!” came Jake’s voice. “That must have hurt!”
Lucas peered up at the moon, lying on his back atop the piss-stained pavement. His vision was blurry. His head throbbed in agony, which shouldn’t have been possible. He could count the number of times he’d felt pain on one hand—if it was missing three fingers.
Christ on a bike, what is happening to me?
Lucas moaned, hurt badly and not understanding why. His skull thudded like an over-tightened drum. An odd sensation in his gut made him retch, like he needed to get something out. Why couldn’t he find the strength to get up? Things were all wrong. He was all wrong.
Jake’s mocking laughter turned feral as he stalked after Vetta, and he hollered through the alleyway. “Looks like you won’t be getting any Leprechaun spunk up you tonight, sweetheart.” He grabbed his crotch and sneered. “Never mind, I’ll give you what you want.”
Lucas battled to get to his feet, but one of Jake’s cronies put the boot in and sent him tumbling over the dirty pavement. He came to rest, gasping, beside the pub’s wheelie bins. With his face so close to the ground, he spotted a deep scorch mark in the exact spot where he’d woken earlier, but there was no time to wonder about it now. He grabbed hold of one of the large metal wheelie bins and hoisted himself to his feet. Propped up, he turned just in time to catch the snarling thug coming in for Round 2. Ducking a punch, he threw himself forward, ramming his shoulder into the lad’s ribs. Only mildly stunned, the lad rushed back in, but this time, Lucas struck like a snake and rammed two fingers into each eyeball.
The lad dropped to his knees, squealing.
Jake’s remaining crony appeared and swung the pool cue from Lucas’s left, parting the air with an audible whoosh. Lucas was too sluggish to duck in time, but he managed to get an arm up and absorb the blow into his armpit. It knocked the wind out of him, but he held on long enough to tackle the lad into the bin and wrench the pool cue away. Then he cried out as the lad fought back, ramming rights and lefts into his ribs. Eventually, he managed to turn and dodge a punch aimed at his head, giving himself an opening. He straightened his neck and rammed his forehead into the lad’s nose. An audible crunch and the lad dropped like a lump of coal. Lucas kicked him in the backside for good measure.
“Yer pa must have been a cactus. Because you’re a right wee prick!”
It wasn’t his best line, but it would have to do. Vetta’s screams were calling. Jake had chased her all the way down the alleyway by now, and it sounded like he’d caught her. Clutching his ribs, Lucas hurried as quickly as he could. He found Vetta scrambling through a patch of muddy grass outside a Chinese takeaway, with Jake on top of her. He was trying to flip her onto her back, and even at a distance, and in the darkness, Lucas could see the animal lust on his face. Jake couldn’t stop what he was doing now even if he wanted to. The beast had him. That and a shit-load of Columbia-knows-what.
Lucas roared, and felt exuberant as his fire suddenly returned from wherever it had fled, whooshing back into his body. The weakness that had oddly befallen him was gone. He was himself again.
And in one hell of a pissing bad mood.
“Get off her!” Lucas bellowed. “Get off her before I show you what true violence really is.” Jake was obviously surprised to see Lucas back on his feet, and he glanced towards the alleyway for his friends. Lucas snarled. “They can’t help you now, lad.”
Jake clambered to his feet, allowing Vetta to scramble away on her knees. He seemed to consider his options but decided to rush at Lucas with both hands ready to brawl. As soon as he was close, he threw a punch, an arcing haymaker that could have put an elephant to sleep. Lucas threw a punch of his own, equally dangerous, just as fast.
Their fists collided in mid-air, seasoned conkers cracking together and making the sound of a gunshot. Jake yelled and recoiled, clasping his right hand as if it was on fire. “Y-You broke my goddamn hand, you maniac!”
“Aye! And because I’m having an off night, that’s all I’ll break. Now sod off before I really get going.”
Jake sneered. “I’m going to ki—”
“What? Kill me? Believe me, boy, far greater villains than you have tried. Plenty of heroes too. Yet here I stand.” Barely though it might be.
Jake swallowed, then looked about sheepishly, before turning and fleeing into the alleyway like a kicked cat.
“Wise move,” Lucas muttered to himself. “Eejit!”
Vetta stood nearby, sobbing like a frightened child who had lost her mother, and Lucas did something to which he was unaccustomed. He went and put an arm around her. “Everything will be okay,” he said. She was safe.
She was trembling. “H-He was going to-”
“I know what the maggot was planning to do, lass, but he didn’t. You’re fine. You’re okay. Lucas has got you.”
Vetta was a child in his arms, and her fear made him ache. He didn’t let go until her tears dried up.
It took some time.
* * *
“How did you fight them all off? Those… those bastards!” Vetta had recovered from her ordeal and was now angry that Jake had attacked her. The anger was good though, for it meant she wouldn’t let fear cow her. She clutched Lucas’s right hand now and examined it closely. “You’re not even hurt.”
“I have tough, old bones,” he said, although he felt more fragile than ever. “Takes a lot to cast me down. God himself, one might say.”
She frowned, perhaps sensing there were unapparent truths in his words. He chided himself for toying with her, but she didn’t seem irritated by it. In fact, every time she looked at him, she seemed fascinated. She broke away from her stare to check her watch, a clunky gold thing, then tapped her finger against the glass. “My taxi will be any minute. You sure I cannot have number? I would like to see you again, Lucas, if only being friends.”
He hugged her, growing to enjoy the contact. “You’ve already suffered enough of my company, lass. Don’t give yourself any more reason to blame me.”
She tiptoed and kissed him on the cheek. “Of all people in the world I blame, Lucas, you are not one.”
Headlights flooded the road at the bottom of the hill and Vetta wished him goodbye. She glanced back once, but if she did so a second time, he didn’t see it because he hurried back into the darkness of the alleyway, wanting to take another look at that scorch mark he had seen. It meant something.
Jake and his thugs had scarpered, but they shouldn’t have posed any threat to Lucas anyway. He was invincible. All powerful. But not tonight. Instead, he had taken half a beating and allowed an innocent girl to be assaulted. The fear in Vetta’s innocent blue eyes already haunted him.
He reached the spot behind the pub where he had seen the scorch mark and stopped. A blue light hummed above the back door, but there was little else to see by. That the moon was full helped a little, but he had to kneel to get a proper look. The scorch mark was still there, and he was sure it was the exact spot where he’d woken up. What had burned the ground here? Had hellfire accompanied his arrival?
Arrival from where? And why did I end up in an alleyway behind a pub? How bloody much did I have to drink?
But it wasn’t a booze blackout. Such things were not a burden to one such as him. No, this was something else. Something that terrified Lucas to his core.
Confused, he reached out a hand, hoping to find further clues around the scorch mark, but before he could investigate further, a massive rush of air buffeted his back and knocked him forwards onto his hands and knees. A single blue feather fluttered down in front of his face and came to rest on the ground. He recognised it immediately, and when he leapt up and whirled around, the brightest of lights blinded him.
A light he knew all too well.
Not now! Christ on a bike, not now.
“LUCIFER, FALLEN ANGEL OF LIGHT, ADVERSARY AND DECEIVER, FATHER OF LIES AND ABYSSAL LORD, SATAN, DEVIL INCARNATE, AND RIGHTFUL MONARCH OF HELL. I BESEECH YOU.”
The light faded, and Lucas faced his kin. “I go by the name Lucas nowadays, Gladri. And you don’t need to shout. I have the same hearing you do.”
Gladri raised a delicate white eyebrow and gave a hollow interpretation of a smirk. He was beautiful as always—flawless—but it was that flawlessness that made his features so uninteresting. That and the fact he struggled to emulate any single human emotion.
“And you sport a peculiar accent as well,” he commented. “Very well, I shall grant you your delusions… Lucas.”
“And I shall grant you yours, Gladri, but first d’you want to reign in your glory a bit? You’re making a fella feel a tad inferior.”
“My apologies!” Gladri retracted his vast blue and red wings like the receding plumage of a posturing peacock. The thick scars on Lucas’s shoulder blades twinged with phantom pain as he recalled his own lost appendages. His wings had been magnificent, the blackest of blacks, and of greater span than all but one other angel. Gladri’s were minuscule by comparison. He tried not to dwell on the loss. It would only make him angry.
“What can I do for you, brother?” Lucas asked wearily. “It’s unlike you to dirty yourself in the realm of men—especially a manky alleyway outside a boozer.”
Gladri glanced around and seemed to notice the squalor for the first time. As if to taunt him, a fat rat scurried from one side of the alley to the other. Disdain clung to the angel’s face as he spoke. “It is good to see you again, brother, all things considered, but the reason I seek you is not social.”
“When is it ever? I was hoping Heaven may have forgotten about me by now. They stopped inviting me to the Christmas party ages ago.”
Gladri laughed, but it was an approximation of the sound and thus crudely artificial. “Heaven can hardly afford to forget you, Lucas.”
“Oh, come on! I have done no great ill in two millennium!” he shrugged, “Okay, a slip here or there, but not too wicked, and that thing with the badger and the marmalade wasn’t my fault. Is it not time to finally leave me be? Surely there are more pressing issues for Heaven to deal with?”
Gladri spotted another rat and shuddered. He brushed his platinum tresses behind his ears as if he feared they might drag on the ground. “Do not think me naive, Lucas. You have no desire to be left alone.”
“Really? How’s that then?”
“If you wanted peace, you would have stayed in Hell, instead of leaving it in disarray. No, you desire Heaven’s attention. You seek Father’s forgiveness. Ha! The Devil seeks to atone. Is it absurd or poetic?”
Lucas sighed. “How about tragic?”
“Yes! Yes, that is it! Your existence is tragic, brother, and destined to become more so, I fear.”
Lucas groaned. Here it comes! The telling off. The mockery. The contempt. Lucas was no stranger to Heaven’s sanctimony, had even gone to war over it. “Spit it out, Gladri! Either that or let’s go find a place still serving beer.”
Gladri winced. “Beer? A base substance depriving beings of virtue. You are a disgrace, brother, as much now as you ever were. You act like you wish to be one of them—a human—but it is an act, is it not? You do play the part well, admittedly, empathising with their plight, trying to right wrongs… Yes, yes! Fighting the good fight, a reformed villain delivering justice. Ha! Wonderful. But you do not love humanity, brother. You seek only to undermine the past. If you simply do enough good, surely you shall be welcomed back into Heaven, a warrior returned. We’ll throw a parade and Michael himself shall embrace you.” Gladri’s glorious face darkened and the joy of reunion seemed to depart. “It is fantasy. A charade. You pursue your own ends under the guise of kindness, and it mocks us all. There is no way back for you… Lucifer.”
Lucas felt his temper boiling. Tonight was not a night he would heed a lecture. “I thought God forgives! Isn’t that his whole gig?”
“He forgives much, but not all. And not us, brother. Not we, the first sons and daughters. We subscribe to a higher standard. You know this, for you were once the best of us. It still pains me at how far you’ve fallen. Michael is still to cease his weeping.”
“The dote always was a cry-baby,” Lucas muttered. This was the kind of piousness that had led him to turn against Heaven, and he enjoyed hearing it no more now. “You think we subscribe to a higher standard, Gladri? Why? Because of the power we wield? Angels have no power, merely the illusion of it. What can an angel do in Heaven but obey? At least down here there are consequences—choices. Perhaps you’re right though, perhaps I do have an agenda for helping humanity, but you’re wrong about one thing.”
Gladri rolled his eyes, a gesture most unbecoming of an angel, and it seemed to make the musky air in the alleyway groan. “And what is that?”
“I love humanity with all my heart. It is the only thing that has given me any joy during my everlasting penance. My brothers abandoned me because of a mistake I made long ago, and still you refuse to forgive me. You cast me into a fiery pit, you took my light…” He inhaled and tried not to let the memories cripple him. “You took my wings, you… you… you feckin’ dryshites!” He took a moment to gather himself, pinching his nose and focusing on the brittle bone beneath the flesh. When he looked up again, there were tears in his eyes. Even now, the memories devastated him. “And yet, I love you all still. Father too. You say I am Fallen, Gladri, but I love more now than I ever did in Heaven. Love does not exist in duty and obedience. It exists in sacrifice and desire. Without consequence, love amounts to nothing.”
Gladri flapped his wings in irritation, sending rubbish and dust hurtling down the alleyway. Two plastic shopping bags rose up and danced together like lovers in the moonlight, and that orphaned blue feather appeared again, swirling upwards into the night like it was en route to the moon. “You are a celestial being, Lucifer, as am I. You are not special. You are not different. One must applaud your rousing speech though, regardless of its delusion. Play a part long enough and you shall become it.”
Lucas growled. “It is not an act! I understand humanity more than any brother in Heaven. My rebellion was only unforgivable because those in Heaven lack the ability to see past blind obedience. To not do as commanded is the only sin in Heaven, and it encompasses all. Down here, amongst the weakness of mankind, there are countless sins, yet all can be forgiven. Any soul can atone. Father sees that too, I know it. He would not have cast me down just to punish me. If that were the case, he would have closed Hell off from Earth and left me trapped there forever—but he did not. He tethered Hell and Earth together, and allowed me to mix with mankind, to learn its ways and see the strength he placed in the hearts of every man. I am down here in the dirt because Father intended me to be, so let me get my hands dirty. There’s work to do, let me get on with it.”
“No, brother, you are here because you broke Father’s heart beyond mending, and you have made a nuisance of yourself across the tapestry for too long. Heaven’s patience is at an end. It does not please me to render unto you Father’s latest judgement, but it is my duty. As you, yourself, once taught me.”
Lucas knew when it was time to go, so he prepared to make a run for it, but when he tried to phase away, his body went nowhere—in fact he was frozen stiff. He couldn’t move even the smallest finger on either hand, and he had to fight just to get his lips moving. “W-what are you doing, brother?”
Gladri thrust out his delicate hands, summoning blue flames of heavenly fire. His eyes became icy lanterns, and his words cast white smoke into the air. “The sentence is already passed, Lucifer. You may have felt its beginnings already, but I am here to render it whole. From henceforth, you shall walk amongst the lower creatures as one of them.”
Lucas fell to his knees, body burning. His chest sucked agonisingly inward—air rushing into virgin lungs. His vision deteriorated rapidly, losing colour and clarity. Hearing dulled. Strength ebbed away. A hollowness fell over him, of which he had never known—even in the lowest pits of Hell.
He felt weak.
No! No, it can’t be!
“Why?” begged Lucas, barely able to lift his heavy head. “Why does Father do this to me? Why can He not forgive?”
Gladri seemed at once amused and regretful, his wings twitching behind him as if he were eager to take flight. “You are an artificer of catastrophe, a wielder of destruction, and Heaven will tolerate your recklessness no longer. Humanity is the thing you claim to covet most, so we shall see how truly you empathise with it. You shall live and die as a man. Perhaps that is the forgiveness you seek, Lucifer.”
“My name is Lucas!”
“So be it. Farewell, Lucas.”
Lucas clawed himself along the floor like a baby learning to crawl. Gladri was gone, a small patch of blue flame dwindling where he’d been, and that single blue feather still fluttering in the air. The two plastic bags ceased their dancing and settled on the ground in the middle of the alleyway. Lucas studied them as if they might have answers, but of course there was no sense to be had in any of this.
Cast down again, even lower than before, he finally understood that Father would never forgive him. It had all been for nothing.
His time was coming to an end. There would be no return. No chance to atone.
A shadow emerged from the same alcove Jake and his friends had hidden in earlier. This time it was a woman. “V-Vetta? What are you doing here?”
As much as she looked concerned to find him lying on the ground, she also looked embarrassed, and she lit up the darkness with her glowing red cheeks. “Car at bottom of hill was not taxi. It was someone picking up friend. I not want to wait alone so I hurry after you. I…” She stopped talking, as if worried something bad might happen. When she continued, her voice was half-volume. “Was that an angel you talk to?”
Lucas groaned. “A monster, not an angel.”
“But it had wings.”
He groaned again. “Yeah, okay, fine, it was an angel. Can you just help me up, please?”
“Of course.” She rushed to his side and got him standing again. His body felt like it was full of oddly shaped bricks. “How do I help?” she asked.
Lucas staggered forwards, taking some steps on his own. “Find me a feckin’ drink.”