The tension broke me from my sleep. The feeling of their eyes- all of their eyes- made my skin crawl. I shot up, my eyes widening as the little creatures flew back from me as quickly as they could. Each of them has a little grey body with four arms, five dark black eyes, and a pair of short legs. Their arms and legs end in three stubby fingers. They screeched when my wings spread out behind me and pulled me out from under them, my back slammed against a wooden wall, shaking the contents of the small cabin.
“That wasn’t very nice.” The heathen man said with a vile look of amusement. He sat across from me in a rickety wooden chair, leaning it back on two legs and then slamming it down onto all fours again, his weight making the wood groan.
I gestured to the small creatures, a dozen of them maybe. “What are they?”
The little creatures tried their best to hide themselves behind the large man. “Flightlings.” He said simply. “True Offspring of the Underworld.”
“I’ve never seen them before.” I relaxed and sat on the edge of the twin bead where I had been laying. The little creatures looked hurt and disappointed by my words. Were they hoping I recognized them? They acted fragile and innocent like mortal children.
I forced the heathen to shelter me through the night. My body was too weak to do much more than walk a few miles the day before. I hardly remembered arriving at the cabin and dropping into the bed. I didn't remember any Flightlings. I couldn’t have kept my eyes open even if I would have tried as hard as I could. Sleep had called out to me. I dreamed of the Overworld, the pillars of white and gold, marble and feasts. I belonged there.
“Flightlings are at my call here.” The heathen said, breaking my train of thought about the marvels of the Overworld and how much I missed my home. The only things that frightened me were the faceless ones that tore my wings from me and tossed me out. I still couldn’t remember why though. Why had I suffered such a gruesomely ill fate?
“Shouldn’t they be at my will?” I snapped when I realized he was trying to assert his control again. “I’ve won your challenge. All that’s yours is truly mine.” I reasoned.
The heathen nodded, biting down on his lip. “Although I am under your thumb and shall do as you command, the Flightlings are my creation, I remain their master.”
My head snapped to meet his eyes. “Only the monsters in the bowels of the Underworld can create such beings.” I said matter-of-factly.
He nodded. “I’m no more of a beast than you, and you- my love- are very much a monster. Even I cannot best you.” He stood and opened the cabin door, letting in the light and fresh air. The grey little Flightlings escaped, dispersing into the woodlands. “I meet all of the new offerings when they arrive, and I aptly put them in their place, but not you. You bested the Lord of the Under. How?”
I shook my head and laughed at him. “Impossible. You’re a liar. Heathens all lie.”
“I’ll take you to the Fold then. You can see for yourself. Would you like me to walk you into the Underworld myself?” He paused for a short laugh. "There are no other heathens anymore. You can look for them, but you will find none. The rebellion was snuffed out last I checked. I'd say you were a gift from the Fold itself."
I ignored his rambling. I wouldn't believe a word he said until I knew for certain he was honest. Most Heathens were less than honest beings. “If you take me to the Fold I will destroy it and return home.” I clipped.
He scoffed. “You can try, but the Fold won't allow you.”
The heathen walked through the door and I immediately followed, something drew me to his side to follow. He walked me to a clearing and expanded his wings. They flapped delightedly to be free. He offered me his hands, but I expanded my own wings and bore him my fangs, a declaration of my own capabilities. The heathen only laughed at me and pushed off from the ground with his powerful sturdy legs.
I followed after him, but I was quick and it felt entirely new to fly. I twisted and twirled through the air, loving the air in them and the feeling of the sun beating down on me. The black of my wings catching the sun and absorbing the warmth for me, radiating it throughout my body. I took a second to bask in the light, hovering over the clouds, the sky darkening the farther out I looked. A light blue vibrated through the sky as the sun illuminated it, the clouds reflecting the rays back into the universe. Could I remain here for a moment more?
I felt the pull of the Earth when I stilled my wings, turning myself to rocket down like a bullet towards the surface, I zipped past the Heathen, making him flinch back away with an expression of awe. As the ground came closer and closer an adrenaline filled throughout me. An evil laugh passed through me. I opened my wings and caught the air in a forceful bellow and slammed to the ground, the heels of my feet biting deep into the ground, creating a crater for each of them to comfortably rest in. The ground and air shook from the impact and a cloud of dust blew out away from me. I could feel the power of my body pulsing through me, the sun had energized me, filling me with a total sense of power.
The heathen landed beside me, gently. “You knew where you were going.” He said mockingly. “Do you still think you belonged there?” He moved to a dying tree in the middle of the little wild flower field we landed in. The flowers danced playfully in colors of reds, purples, and yellows. I barely noticed, but the fold was calling out to me, it wanted me. Celeste...
I approached the tree one step at a time. The talons on my wings extended to their full length, my fangs protruding. There was a deep gash in the tree and without hesitation I dug the talon of my right wing into the dead graying tree bark, deepening the wound there. The tree wavered like a vision in a dream and split into three. The worlds here were overlapping, I could see them all. Two of the worlds were very close to being one, the Underworld enveloping the Mortal one. The Overworld drifted far off. I looked up into it, seeing the marble entrance way and gate.
I took a step towards the Overworld, my wings lifting me into the air to reach it. Faceless beings greeted me, their bodies mangled and backwards, some were headless, missing a wing, arms, or legs. I looked closely and saw the red splattered floors and walls. The white pillars turning a dark black, a fog covering in its depths, eating the Overworld. The Faceless beings reached for me desperately, but I held my arm away. They screamed in protest, their mouths opening so wide the corners of their mouths paled and tore, revealing rows and rows of sharp teeth there.
My feet landed back on what I thought was the Mortal world, my wings retreating into my sides and as they did the gates to the Other Worlds closing. “What happened to it?”
The heathen laughed, sitting idly by the trunk of the dead tree. He stood swiftly, walking towards me, circling me. “Did you think it was something else? Did you think the Overworld was a beautiful haven for you?”
I couldn’t help but nod. He went on then, “It’s consumed by darkness, it’s evaporating. The high-lords of the Overworld thought that they deserved full control of all the worlds, that they got to choose who was eternal and who would be mortal. I disagreed. I left and came to the mortal world, carving the Underworld out of it, a place I could visit to escape the mortals. It’s nothing special. It’s rather nothing at all but a quiet world." He motioned around him in pride with a smile crooked at the side. "You’re in it.”
His revelation to me had my head spinning. “That can’t be.”
“You’re not an offering. You’re a rebel. You were born in the Mortal world, we met on my first fall. I was so entranced by you. It was impossible not to feel you when they tossed you back out. I refused to follow you when they sucked you into the Overworld. You could have saved them. You could have swallowed the darkness, but you know more than I that they’re wicked high-lord fools with deranged dogs protecting their doors, begging to be free. You know more than I, that no one chooses for anyone to be eternal and who to be mortal. The Fold called you to it and you answered as a Mortal. You became a Celestis because you chose to.”
My head was spinning. I collapsed to the ground and held my head over my knees, my arms covering me. “Everything in my mind is a lie.” I let my mind panic for a moment that spanned what felt like time was wrapping around me in a stilling blanket, one second lasting forever.
“Not all of it." The heathen said, pulling me to my feet when I calmed. "The Overworld used to be such a peaceful place. I watched them tear your wings from you when you refused to consume the darkness. They called to me through your pain and agony. They wanted me to come home, to right the wrong in the darkness there and send it away.”
I wanted to save them though. Why couldn’t everything just be right? Why did I leave them all to die? “Why couldn’t I just help them?”
The heathen shrugged. “They’re pulling away into the universe, consumed by it’s unyielding darkness. They made this decision first.”
“I could have saved them though.”
“What?” He laughed. “So they could hang around and send their mangled dogs to hunt down mortals they deemed worthy and bring them through the Fold without their consent? So they can breed those vile animals and control the Mortal World?” He laughed sarcastically. “No. You wouldn’t have done that. Not the Celeste I knew.”
I stood and scratched at the gateways with my talon, but it didn’t open to me. The memories I held of that place were all fabricated, apart from those decrepit creatures that did the bidding of their masters. Couldn’t I at least save them? They didn’t deserve the darkness anymore than the Mortal World deserved to be controlled by anyone or anything.
“Why won’t it let me in?” I cried out as I tried over and over again. “They need me!” I tried to shake the tree with the power of the dark mist curling around it from my fingers, but it refused to budge.
He chuckled. “No one controls the Fold. It doesn’t want you. It’s going to let them perish.”
“What happens if they do? Aren’t the worlds all tethered together?”
He nodded. “Of course, we’ll all die.” He said it matter-of-factly. Completely fine by the fact. He likely lived out thousands of years in the Underworld with no need for more time. “There’s nothing any of us could do. Even when there were a hundred of us.”
I scratched at the bark, begging the Fold to open, but it only showed me the Mortal World. The Mortal World was constantly moving, never hesitating. I had a thought, if the Mortal World dropped me anywhere, there was likely another gate there it wasn't showing me. I could try there. I needed to save them all. I jumped through and the heathen quickly followed after in a fit of rage.
“What have you done?!” He yelled as he gained his baring, his voice a rumbling thunder in his chest. He grasped my shoulders and shook at me.
I laughed at the panic in his eyes, the memories of our first encounter, the way he once held onto me and how the mangled and deranged creatures from the Overworld hunted us down and drug me to the Overworld.
“I remember.” I breathed out in a relieved hushed sound. “I remember.” I repeated. The true terror I felt when I used talons and nails to stop them from dragging me there, his hands holding onto my wrist and then losing his grip. I remembered the terrified howl of his voice when I was torn from him. It was an eternity ago.
The heathen fell to his knees in front of me. He was a creator, a high-lord in the Overworld when he first fell. I remember his face, the way his wings fell from his back and turned to ashes in my hands the day I found him. He rejoiced then in his freedom and with his joy his new velvet black wings sprang from him.
“Say my name.” He begged me as he grasped my hand and turned it palm up to press his cheek into. “Please, say my name.” The last thing we both expected from entering the Mortal World was for my memories to restore. A gift from the Fold.
I thought for a moment, determined to keep him in this groveling and demeaning state. I was dragged to the Overworld and torn into pieces over and over again as my denial to aid the high-lords rang out, and he never followed. He watched from the Underworld and wept. He never followed. I reminded myself.
“You should have come for me. We could have killed them all and restored balance. For a high-lord, you were weak.”
Tears leaked from the corners of his flashing eyes as his lips trembled. His body shook with sobs. “I couldn’t risk being caught. We’re all the Mortals have to protect them from the rest.” His long dark lashes collected the wetness from his tears as he looked up at me and tried to blink them away.
He was right. I remembered that much. One by one the rebelling high-lords that left the Overworld were taken back, tortured, and dumped into the Underworld as a message, a threat. We avoided them for so long.
As he stood groveling, holding my hands the little Flightlings came popping through the fold one after another and tucked themselves into his side. I smiled when I saw them. The Flightlings were our children, our first creation for the Underworld.
My wings shuddered and the Fold to the Underworld opened again beside me. I knelt and took each Flightling into my arms, holding them tightly, a motherly love cascading through me. I remembered their cheerful flights in the Underworld and the joy we all shared there in the quiet and peace.
“It’s time for you to return home. The Mortal World is no place for my children.” With groans of protests and clicking tongues they popped back through in protest. The heathen man chuckled, his sorrow clearing and the tears on his face dried from the back of his hand. It was still hard for me to forgive him.
He looked up at me as I stood again, the Fold closing behind our last child. “We missed you so much.” His face looked distraught again. “I missed you.”
“You failed me.” I corrected. It didn’t matter how much I was missed if he didn’t have the courage to come for me.
His broad shoulders slumped again, his wings titling back in submission. “Take my wings, take my heart, crush me if it’ll only bring you the peace you need.”
I shook my head at him. “No, Atlas, you’re a pillar of strength. I still need you to protect these mortals.” I said softly. “To prove to me you can protect me as well.” I hesitated a moment, day dreaming of a time he held me in his arms, his kiss deep and passionate, our bodies pressed, leaving no space.
“I forgive you.” The words escaped my mouth without warning.
Atlas stood, a sculpture of pure beauty, his long black hair tied behind his head and lifted his shoulders in confidence. “Thank you, my love.”
He offered me his hand and this time when he pulled me into the confines of his muscular body I didn’t think to fight. I melted into his embrace and stared into those chaotic pulsing eyes, letting them seduce me down to my soul. A tingling sensation crept over my skin in anticipation for his lips to touch mine. He was so slow and passionate, but I wanted to cave into him now, kiss the place where his guilty tears stained his face and promise him he was really forgiven. His hand crept up my side, taking the black mist with it, reducing us to our bare bodies. His arm encircled me, pulling my hips against him, our bodies fitting together in the way the universe intended. The Fold had called to me for him, gifted me to him, the first rebel high-lord to stand against the tyranny of his own. I was the gift of the Fold’s approval.
Atlas trailed his hand up the side of my body, leaving a trail of flames across my skin as his finger tips lingered at the dip in my neck, his hand slowly creeping around to the nape and tilting my head back, my hair falling down my shoulders and bouncing in the casual breeze of the mist. As our eyes locked his lips barely touched mine, creating a circle of flames around us as my body was thrilled by his gentle touch. I buried him in a deeper, more aggressive kiss and held him there, our breath mingling and our hearts pounding.
“I need you, Atlas.”