Open and Shut 2: All Mortal Flesh

“Now the sun’s tied with night chains,
Like Prometheus bound
And morning is a long way down
So wrap your arms around me,
And hold me close to your light
I’m too weak for flying tonight
But I don’t care about nighttime,
Or the light that is gone
If you’ll just hold me ’til dawn.”

– Josh Ritter, “Morning is a Long Way Down”

The church was an ancient affair, or as ancient as things got in America. Probably built in the late 1800s, reminiscent of old churches in Europe and England. The windows were stained glass, discretely lit by tiny spotlights, and candles flickered in covered sconces. She could hear people deep in the back of the church, voices and laughter, but she knew no one would disturb her. She waited until Riley left before she let the true pain of her ordeal show. Being in the demon’s den took a lot out of her, more than she was prepared to admit, and destroying the Duchess nearly took the rest.

The pain was a shock, a revelation, and a part of her brain refused to believe she would ever feel normal again. She had never known pain, never thought of what it would be like. Her entire existence had been spent as an angel. Even when there were wounds, they were different than what humans would recognize. Spiritual wounds, tears in the fabric of faith, enough to cause sorrow, but nothing like what she was experiencing now.

Worship helped. Churches were the closest approximation humanity had to what she was used to. Voices singing praise echoed the heavenly host, filled her with light and gave her strength to mend her wounds. She closed her eyes and breathed deep, letting the consecrated air wash over her.

Another pain she hadn’t expected was the pain of dislocation. When Samael fell, Zerachiel felt the shockwaves in her bones. It was the deepest ache she had ever felt, throwing her to her knees as she prayed for the surcease of her agony. And then a hand touched her forehead, brushed her tears away, and an offer was whispered to her. She replied without hesitation, and she became another being. She felt bound, her body twisted and molded to take an unnatural shape.

When her mind stopped reeling, when her senses returned, she found herself in a church. She was kneeling at an altar, head bowed, and raised her eyes to the statue of Christ on the cross hanging before her. She bowed her head again, whispered a prayer of thanksgiving, and pushed to her feet. She went outside and breathed air into new lungs, felt the wind brush through her hair. She was female, and human. The name Caitlin floated at the front of her mind, an Irish name that meant ‘pure.’ It was a good name, and she felt it was appropriate for her.

The first person she saw was a priest. He was crossing the street, a bag of groceries in his arms. He smiled when he saw her, inclined his head, and said, “Blessings, my child.

Priest merely smiled, nodded a greeting, and took her new name from him. Caitlin Priest.

She spent the rest of the night walking, getting accustomed to her new world. Earth was so much noisier than she thought, dirtier, and somehow larger and more claustrophobic at the same time. As she walked, she became acclimated. She focused more on the present moment, the cars and the sounds and the people around her. She was one of them now, as much as the thought pained her. She was still an agent of her Father, and she knew that she was more than the humans around her. Her wings were still there, her holy light still deep within, but it was all contained within a fragile human shell. It was the difference between a beam of sunlight and the warmth that beam left behind.

She was Caitlin Priest, but the larger part of her was still Zerachiel. She took solace in the memories of her time among the other seraphim, closed her eyes and imagined the higher plain with the rest of her family, basking in the Father’s light. Sometimes she hummed under her breath, swaying in her empty apartment to the sound of music coming from the church below. It was a balm to her soul, healing the many wounds and worries she accumulated over the course of the day.

But as another tremor of pain passed through her, she doubted even worship would help her. She bowed forward, resting her head on the back of the pew in front of her. “Help me, Father,” she whispered. Tears fell from her eyes to the floor of the sanctuary, and she shuddered as she wrapped her arms around her torso.

It was hard enough for an angel to destroy a demon, let alone an angel that had descended to the mortal plain. She felt like she was going to be torn apart. She could feel the presence of the Duchess in her mind like the remnants of a terrible nightmare. Ephemeral, dark and silent, flashes of evil and hatred and pain from the corner of her eye. She knew it would fade in time, and all she had to do was bear with it until the last vestiges were nothing more than a memory.

But it was worth it. She succeeded, the Duchess was eradicated, and Gillian Hunt was, God willing, safe in the hospital. That was worth whatever happened next.

Priest knew that she may die because of what she had done. It was the tacit agreement made when she became a guardian angel. When her mortal body died – and it would die, there was never any doubt about that – she would return to Heaven to continue her existence until she was called upon again. She was eager to return, but she also knew she could wait for a very long time until that happened. She wasn’t ready to leave Riley yet.

She finally felt able to sit up and face the front of the church. Rain washed down the stained glass windowpanes, and she closed her eyes to focus on the sound of the rainfall. It was only a few seconds after she sat up when she heard the footsteps coming down the aisle toward her pew. She instinctively knew it wasn’t a priest, or anyone human, and she didn’t have to turn to know who had been sent.

Michael sat across the aisle from her and pulled a hymnal from the slot on the back of the pew in front of him. He wore desert camouflage combat fatigues underneath a flak jacket. He was the quintessential soldier, combat boots placed far apart, holding the hymnal in one hand with the fingers splayed to keep the book from falling. He flipped through the pages until he found what he was looking for.

“Have you ever heard Maria, Mater Gratiae done out of doors? It can be… majestic.” He hummed a bit of it and then closed the hymnal on his thumb.

“Hello, Michael.”

“Zerachiel. You’ve looked better.”

Priest smiled and nodded toward the altar. “Just give me a little quality time in the Father’s house. I’ll be fine.”

Michael looked at her. “There was some commotion upstairs when the Duchess was destroyed. You took a mighty risk, Zerachiel. Gillian Hunt is not your responsibility.”

“Riley Parra is. Saving Gillian kept Riley from going to pieces. Saving Gillian was, in effect, saving Riley.”

“You’ve grown fond of your mortality, haven’t you?”

Priest thought about it for a long time. She had never thought of it that way, but it was the truth. She finally said, “For ages we watched these people fight tooth and claw to stay alive. We never understood it. I’ve been a human for a handful of weeks now, and I can tell you why. To be alive is exhilarating. Emotions and pain and humor and grief. It’s like nothing we’ve ever experienced.”

“Our love for the Father…”

“…is similar,” Priest admitted. “Stronger, perhaps, but it’s nothing a human can comprehend or achieve. We always thought our way was better, and we pitied them. But it’s just different. That’s all. There’s really no comparison.”

Michael straightened his shoulders, staring at the crucifix at the front of the church. “There are those who would have you recalled. They believe you’ve grown too close to Riley. That you’ve been corrupted by your humanity.”

“I have been,” Priest said. “And I am close to Riley. It’s what she needed, and I provided it. I will continue to provide it, with His blessing. Riley is special. She knows the chances, she can see the odds stacked against her, and she marches forward regardless.” Priest smiled. “She goes where angels fear to tread, and she goes there willingly. Bravely. Without a moment’s hesitation. Because it is what’s necessary. Many angels could learn from her.”

“Many angels could die by following her.”

“But there is only me. There could be legions of angels here, standing by her side, helping her fight, but there aren’t. The heavenly host is occupied elsewhere. I understand. But you would do well not to criticize the one person who is fighting the battle you are unwilling to join.”

Michael chuckled quietly and said, “You seem to have gotten your strength back, Zerachiel.”

Priest looked at the cross and realized he was right. She felt stronger. The pain was still there, but diminished. Just a bit. Enough to let her sit up straight and give strength to her voice. She was well enough to return home. She nodded and pushed herself up out of the pew. “So it would seem. Thank you for stopping by, Michael.”

“She’s dangerous,” Michael said, not bothering to look up at her. “Riley. She’s incredibly dangerous.”

“I know.” Priest smiled. “That’s why Marchosias should be very afraid. Good-bye, Michael.” She walked to the front of the sanctuary and dipped her fingers into the holy water. She watched it glisten on her fingers, the blessing of it tingling against her flesh. She closed her eyes and said a silent prayer before touching the water to her forehead, sternum and shoulders. “By this holy water, and by Your Precious Blood, wash away all my sins, O Lord. Protect Riley Parra. Protect Gillian Hunt.”

She turned and looked back into the church, but Michael was already gone.

She rubbed her thumb against her fingertips until they weren’t wet anymore. She smiled, took a final breath of the hallowed air, and stepped out of the church.

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