The Soul Destroyer – Elicia Hyder

My right knee wouldn’t stop bouncing. I wasn’t even sure why the hell I was so nervous. It’s not like my kid was being born today. Maybe it was because I was in a hospital. God knows, my presence in such a place wasn’t good for anyone. Maybe it was because the most dangerous angel in all of history might be coming into the world via emergency C-section in the very next room. Or maybe all my anxiety was because of her. She was certainly the reason my eyes kept flicking toward the entrance. Never mind that I’d spent over seven decades in Eden away from her; my heart quickened like it still beat on Earth’s time. For here, on this planet, it had only been a year since Sloan Jordan —err, Sloan McNamara—had almost become my wife. And now she was married to my best friend. And they were raising my daughter together. And a slight possibility existed that she might walk through the door at any second… The waiting-room door opened. It was Reuel returning from another trip to the vending machine. My partner, a hulking guardian angel, was stress eating a fourth bag of potato chips since he’d arrived.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. And two candy bars were tucked into the front pocket of his shirt. He caught my eye, looked mildly guilty, then smiled. At least his crumb-covered mouth smiled. His worried eyes were fixed with fright. It was almost funny seeing such a huge and lethal angel reduced to a bundle of nerves. But he loved the mother-to-be down the hall in surgery—platonically, of course, the way all the guardians surely grow to love their charges. He’d been with Fury almost exclusively since he and my father found her twenty-something years ago. “You all right?” I asked, looking up—way up—at him. He grunted and sat down beside me.

I patted his bulky shoulder. “She’ll be fine. Fury’s strong. There’s nothing to worry about.” “Akal ai vevru ta,” he said in our language, Katavukai, without meeting my eyes. Translated, he said, “She’s different now.” My eyes fell to the speckled tile floor. He was right. Fury was different. I saw it in her soul—whatever it was—the first time I laid eyes on her after she became pregnant.

She knew it too, though I doubt she’d ever admitted it to anyone but me. Fury was good at keeping secrets. Reuel looked at my bouncing knee. “Mas alis kavalai par kalai?” I snapped my fingers and pointed at him. “Yes! That’s exactly it. I’m stressed about the murders.” I sank back in my seat. “Thanks, Reuel. I’m not stressed about—” The door opened again. I jolted upright, then immediately slumped upon seeing my father, Azrael.

He was alone. He frowned. “Don’t look so happy to see me, Warren.” Beside me, Reuel was chuckling. “Sorry.” I stood and greeted him with a hug. Mortality suited Azrael, except it was a shock to see age on his face and his onceeternal frame. He’d only been mortal for a few months, but it was already showing in the tiny crinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth. And, for the first time, Azrael was shorter than me. Only millimeters perhaps.

Something hopefully only my keen eye would detect. “Have I missed anything?” he asked when he stepped back to greet Reuel. “Not yet.” I looked at the thick black tactical watch encircling my wrist. “She went into labor seventeen hours ago and toughed it out at home until her water broke. John came in a little while ago and said they’re doing a C-section because her cervix isn’t dilating.” “But she’s OK?” “Yeah, she’s all right.” I looked over his shoulder. “You’re alone?” “Yes.” “Oh.

” He must have noticed my face fall. “Are you disappointed?” “I was hoping to see Adrianne.” He laughed. So did Reuel. “Bullshit,” Azrael said. Heat rushed to my cheeks, but I hoped no one would notice as we sat down. “I’m not completely alone. Nathan dropped me off at the entrance. He’s parking the car.” “Where’s Iliana?” “Your daughter is safe at Echo-5.

” After a beat, he added, “Sloan is with her if you’re wondering.” “I’m not.” “Sure.” He lowered his voice even though we were the only people in the room. “We’re taking extra precautions with Iliana now that it’s been over a year.” That made me feel both better and worse. My daughter—the Vitamorte, the most powerful angel in existence—had recently been moved into Echo-5, a supernaturally-secure building hidden in the mountains of western North Carolina. It was outside Asheville on the Wolf Gap compound, a division of my father’s private military company, Claymore Worldwide Security. Iliana couldn’t be any safer than at Wolf Gap with her own personal security team, SF12. They were each hand-selected by Azrael.

Twelve (or currently, eleven) men and women with special-ops military backgrounds, combat experience, and most importantly —hands-on training to deal with threats from m y world. To say they were elite and unique human warriors wouldn’t come close to being an adequate description. But the cause for high alert had me worried. Angels came to Earth in many forms. Most stayed as spirits, completely unseen and almost undetectable to mortals. They could influence humans to some degree but not cause bodily harm. Other angels possessed human bodies—bodies that could be alive or dead. Those angels were a threat, but their powers were limited and they were fairly easy to dispatch. The most dangerous angels to the human race were those reborn on Earth into bodies infused with immortality. They were almost limitless in their abilities, easily camouflaged among the living, and they could reproduce.

Demon spawn were a very real thing. I would know because, technically, I was one. I was born a Seramorta: part angel, part human. And though he was on the right side of heaven now, Azrael was once a coerced member of the fallen. My mother had been completely human, and for a time, she was held hostage through demonic possession by the Morning Star himself. She’d died a little over a year ago, the exact moment the Morning Star had been dispatched into the stratosphere. That was when the waiting game began. It would be a year before the Morning Star would be strong enough to possess another human—or be reborn into a new form. Enter our current predicament. I looked at my father.

“If the Morning Star does return as Fury’s kid, that will almost be easier for all of us.” Azrael smirked. “You want to go through Fury to take her child away?” “She’s not exactly the maternal type.” “Parenthood changes people, son. Never discount that.” Reuel crumpled his chip bag. “Akal kaval”—he held up his finger and thumb in the shape of a pistol—“pew, pew.” We had no word in our language for “gun.” “Fury gave up shooting completely?” I asked, surprised. Fury was an expert marksman, or markswoman, I guess.

She made me, a former sniper for the Marine Corps and a Claymore firearms instructor, look like I’d done a little target practice with a BB gun. Azrael nodded. “I heard that too. The doctor warned her about the decibel level of gunfire during her pregnancy, and that was it.” “Wow. Good for her though. That’s as it should be.” Still, Fury being mom-like was weird. Crazy weird. “Has the Council decided on a game plan if the Morning Star happens to be born among us?” Azrael asked.

“Not yet. It’s on the floor for discussion now. They’ve been debating it for weeks and are supposed to send for me when there’s a decision.” “You know what you’re most likely going to have to do, right?” Nausea churned in my stomach, which reminded me of the situation in Italy. “I need to talk to you about something else pretty serious. Not here though.” A maternity ward was no place for talk of beheaded women. “Sounds ominous.” “I’m afraid it is.” He opened his mouth to say something else, but the waiting-room door opened.

I looked up as Nathan McNamara walked inside. My nemesis. And my very best friend. He wore his signature olive-drab ball cap with the “Regular Guy” patch I’d given him fixed to the front. Appropriate, since he was the only human in our group. His goofy, lopsided grin broke on his face when he saw me. I stood as he put a couple of bags down on a nearby chair. “There’s my favorite Area 51 Reject,” he said, opening his arms. With a laugh, I stepped forward to embrace him. I clapped him on the back.

“Good to see you, Nate.” “You too, man.” When I pulled back, Reuel was standing beside me. Nathan laughed and hugged him. “Reuel, my old friend, it’s been too long.” With a grunt, Reuel lifted Nathan’s feet off the ground. “You haven’t seen each other in what, almost a year?” I asked when Reuel put him down. “Ten months, I guess. Not at all since Iliana was born. Been staying busy?” Nathan asked him.

Reuel nodded and pointed at me. “I know. I’m a dictator,” I said. Reuel smiled. “Kitak es ket alis appa.” He and I both looked back at Azrael. “Almost as bad as me?” Azrael pointed at him. “Nobody said you had to work for either of us. You volunteered, so just eat your snacks and keep your mouth shut.” Reuel’s shoulders shook with silent laughter.

“Speaking of snacks…” Nathan reached for the bags he’d put down and handed one of them to Reuel. “I made a pit stop on the way here and brought you a treat.” Reuel pulled out a box from Southside Sweets, an Asheville bakery I was sure could have been kept in business by Nathan and Reuel alone. With a gleeful grin, Reuel hugged Nathan again. “Gratalis.” “You’re welcome.” Nathan handed me the other bag, a black gift bag with a tealribbon handle. “Sloan sent you this.” “How is she?” I asked as I accepted it. His smile widened.

“She’s amazing. Such a great mother. You’d be really proud.” “I knew she would be.” I looked into the bag. “What’s this?” “Open it,” Nathan said, sitting in a chair across from us. I sat down and pulled out the tissue-paper wrapped object inside. It was a book. A photo album. And my baby girl’s face was on the cover.

A lump the size of a watermelon rose in my throat. I tried to swallow it back down with a painful gulp. “Sloan thought you might like to have pictures that were bigger than the size of your phone’s screen.” I was half tempted to put the book back into the bag without looking at it, because I knew if I did look, there was a high probability of tears in front of my friends. But Reuel was already leaning over my shoulder to look, dropping sprinkles from his donut on my sleeve. When I opened the cover, a slip of paper floated to the floor. I picked it up and saw Sloan’s familiar sloppy cursive. Dear Warren, I hope this letter finds you well. Not a day passes that we don’t think of you. Iliana is happy and healthy, completely caught up (and then some) with the other babies her age.

Can you believe she’ll be a year old soon? She’s crawling all over the place now. Nathan has it on video, so be sure to remind him to show you. We don’t leave the penthouse much these days, for obvious reasons. I’ll be so thankful when the Morning Star resurfaces, and we know exactly what we’re dealing with. I swear, the nervous wondering and waiting is almost worse than facing him in the flesh. Rest assured, everyone on this side of the spirit line is on high alert, as I’m sure you are as well. Enjoy the book. Wish you were here. Love always, Sloan I blinked a few times to stop the tingling at the corners of my eyes. Then I flipped to the first page of the book.

Someone, probably Nathan, had drawn a handlebar mustache on Iliana’s face. Reuel and I both laughed. “It was chocolate sauce,” Nathan said, leaning over to look at it upside down. “Of course it was.” Nathan ate more junk food than any other human I’d ever known. I looked more closely at the picture. “Is that a bow?” “Yeah, Adrianne tapes one to her head every time we see her now. Poor kid. I don’t think she’ll ever have any real hair.” The next page was a photo of Iliana holding Sloan’s face.

They were nose-to-nose and both laughing. My heart twisted, and a bubble of unstoppable emotion creaked out of my constricted airway. I tried—and failed—to mask it as a cough. Nathan caught my eye and put his hand on my shoulder. “I want to show you something.” He pulled his phone from his pocket and swiped the screen with his thumb. After a few taps, he turned it toward me. It was a video. I expected it to be of Iliana crawling. Instead, it was a clip taken over Nathan’s shoulder from behind.

He was holding Iliana in the crook of his arm while he held a picture album in his hand. The book was open to a photo of Sloan. “Illy, who’s this?” he asked her. “Mama!” she chirped happily, clapping her tiny hands. He turned the page. “And who’s this?” It was a photo of Sloan’s dad. “Papa!” She looked off-camera and pointed, probably because Dr. Jordan was somewhere in the room. “Good girl.” Nathan turned another page.

“And who is this?” It was a picture of me, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, stretched across the white bed I’d shared with Sloan. It was taken a few days before Iliana was born. Iliana lunged forward and grabbed the book. “Appa!” Appa. The word for Father in Katavukai. I covered my mouth with my hand as a few rogue tears escaped down my cheeks. Nate squeezed my arm. “She knows you, brother.” Sniffing, I pinched the bridge of my nose, then swiped away the tears. I cleared my throat and finally looked up.

“Thanks for that. Will you send it to me?” “You bet.” I tucked the photo album back into the bag. “I’ll finish looking at this later.” Nathan nodded. “So I’m guessing Satan hasn’t been born yet?” He was looking around like Satan might be standing behind him. Azrael groaned. “That’s not even funny.” Nathan held up his thumb and index finger an inch apart. “It’s a little funny.

I got a group text from Johnny saying they were doing a C-section.” “Supposed to be doing it now,” I said. Azrael sat back and folded his arms over his chest. “You know, it’s probably a good sign that they had to rush her into surgery.” We all looked at him in confusion. “The Morning Star is an Angel of Life and of Knowledge. There shouldn’t be complications with childbirth if his spirit is present.” I hadn’t considered that. Reuel relaxed a little. Nathan nodded toward the door.

“But we’re sure it’s an angel popping out of that uterus?” “It’s something,” Azrael said, staring at the ceiling. The look on his face was puzzling. “What’s the matter?” I asked. He let out a deep sigh. “I wasn’t going to say anything until I knew for certain, but I’m concerned about Adrianne as well.” I turned toward him in my seat. “You’re joking?” “Afraid not.” Azrael’s girlfriend, Adrianne Marx, was also pregnant. Angels could only produce one angelic offspring with a human, and Azrael had met his quota when I was born. “Are you telling me there’s a possibility that my wife’s very best friend on the planet might be carrying the Morning Star?” Nathan’s face was as white as the wall behind him.

Azrael didn’t answer. I held out my hand. “Photograph, please.” I could tell a lot from a picture. He angled to the side and pulled out his phone. “I think it’s still too early to tell. We don’t even find out until Friday if it’s a boy or a girl.” “When’s she due?” I asked as he passed me his cell phone. “Late August.” Reuel looked at the phone over my shoulder.

On the screen was a mirror selfie of Adrianne in a sports bra. She was turned to the side to show off her baby bump. The picture was captioned, “Nineteen Weeks. Baby is the size of a mango!” Had the baby been completely human, I would sense nothing more than a general feeling of virtue—as my gift could judge the righteous souls from the wicked. Instead, a rippled haze—like heat waves off asphalt in summer—radiated around Adrianne’s bare midsection. I swallowed hard and handed the phone back to him. “Your suspicion is valid.” “Verdad,” Reuel agreed. Azrael froze, then his knuckles turned white around the phone before he hurled it across the room at the wall. My hand flew forward and stopped the phone midair before it collided with the drywall.

Nathan gasped. Then, because he was closest, he got up and grabbed the phone where it was suspended. He shook his head as his hand closed around it. “You think I’d be used to this shit by now,” he said, bewildered. He carried the phone back to Azrael and set it down cautiously, two chairs away from him. “Az, when did you notice a difference?” I asked. His eyes were closed, and for a long time, he didn’t answer me. “Adrianne’s had severe morning sickness, all-day sickness really, since the beginning. But that passed a few weeks ago. Then I started noticing her sickness seemed to follow her visits with Sloan.

” “You mean, her visits with Iliana,” I said. He nodded. There were physical side effects when angels in human form were together. It was the primary reason I had to leave Sloan and my daughter when she was born. My presence could warp Iliana’s developing brain. We’d also recently found out what Iliana could do to an angel in the womb. Whenever Fury was around her, Fury’s unborn son would kick and tumble so much, she’d experience motion sickness. And the effects became worse as the fetus and Iliana grew older. It became so bad that Fury had refused to visit Echo-5 at all in the past few months. “Well, shit.

” Nathan stood with so much force that his chair slid backward a few inches across the tiles. “What will I tell Sloan?” “Nothing until we know more,” I said. He shook his head. “I don’t keep stuff from her, Warren. Not ever.” Had to respect that. Even though I rationalized it as protecting Sloan, I couldn’t say as much when she and I were together. Maybe he had learned from my mistakes. Just then, the sound of a slot-machine jackpot filled the room. Nathan reached for his phone.

“I’d say speak of the devil, but that’s a little too heavy-handed for this group. It’s Sloan. Excuse me.” He walked out into the hallway, and my eyes followed him. “Her ringtone on his phone is a jackpot,” I said aloud to no one in particular as I stared at the door closing behind him. My father put his hand on my arm. “You made a good choice, Warren. The right choice.” I took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “I know.

” And I did. Still, some days were harder than others. Because while time really does heal all wounds, love never fades. It never dies. Not even with a lifetime apart. And I’d spent enough time on Earth this day for the wound of losing her to feel as fresh as the day I left. But I couldn’t let myself dwell on it. Fortunately, the intercom above our heads chimed. Then it played the first few bars of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. “He’s here,” I said, looking up.

Azrael’s head snapped back. “Who’s here?” “The baby.” “How the hell do you know that?” I tapped my temple. “Omniscience. It’s a new perk of the job since you left.” He scowled. I laughed and pointed to the sign by the door. “When you hear the nursery bells, a new little angel has been born.” Azrael shoved my shoulder, and I laughed harder as Nathan walked back into the room. “What’s so funny?” Nathan asked.

“Azrael can’t take a joke. Did you hear the bells?” I pointed to the sign again for Nathan. He turned and read it. “Shit. I’ll bet that sign has never been so literal.” “I guarantee it hasn’t,” Azrael said. Nathan reclaimed his seat and looked at me. “Sloan sends her love to everyone.” My heart torqued. Thankfully, no one seemed to notice.

The minutes ticked by slowly on the clock above the waiting-room coffee pot. Reuel tore open a candy bar. Azrael’s knee was bouncing in time with mine. And Nathan was chewing on his thumbnail. Finally, he broke the silence. “So when you guys see Fury’s kid, you’ll know if it’s the Morning Star?” Nathan wagged his finger between me and Reuel. I shifted on my chair. “No. I’ll only know if it’s an angel or human or Seramorta.” “Seriously?” “Seriously.

It’s not like we’re born wearing name tags, Nate.” “The last time I saw you, you told me we should know soon enough which baby was the Morning Star.” “And compared with time in my world, that’s true. A few years on Earth is nothing.” Nate pointed at Azrael. “Warren, you’re becoming as bad as him with all the ambiguity and shit.” I smiled. “I’m sorry. I’ll try to use simpler speech you can understand.” “Thank you—” His mouth quickly snapped shut as he recognized the thinly veiled insult.

“Glad to see immortality hasn’t cured you of being a dick.” We all laughed. The door swung open, and Nathan’s uncle and Fury’s boyfriend, Johnny McNamara, burst through the door in a set of pale-blue scrubs and a paper cap. He was red faced and sweaty with wide eyes and an even wider smile. “It’s a boy! He’s beautiful.” We all stood. Azrael stepped toward him. “How’s Fury?” “She’s great! They didn’t have to do the C-section. Once they doped her up, her body relaxed, allowing her cervix to dilate. He was born naturally.

She’s still groggy, but they’re both perfectly fine.” Reuel breathed a sigh so deep with relief that it shifted our row of connected chairs. I got up to shake Johnny’s hand. “That’s good news. Congratulations.” “Yes. Congratulations,” Azrael echoed. Nathan hugged his uncle. “When can we meet him?” I asked. Johnny jerked his thumb over his shoulder.

“The nurses took him to clean him up. They’re moving Fury to a regular room, and once she’s feeling more alert, we’ll have y’all back to see her.” “Excellent,” I said. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back soon!” With a little skip, Johnny spun on his heel and left. I couldn’t help but smile. Nathan pointed at me and Reuel. “How long will you guys stick around near the baby?” I knew what he was getting at. If Fury’s child was an angel, our presence wasn’t healthy. “They don’t have to stay, but they do need to see the child.” Azrael’s gaze fell enough for me to notice. “I can no longer see angels.” “Oh yeah. Sorry Az.” Azrael waved his hand to dismiss it. I sat back down. “We won’t be here long.” “So will this baby be Seramorta like Sloan and Warren were? Half-angel?” Nathan asked. “Not unless Fury has been sleeping with an angel while she’s been with Johnny,” Azrael said. All eyes in the room turned toward me. I put my hands up in defense. “What the hell? I haven’t slept with Fury!”

.

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