In the dawn of the seven worlds, King Adonai forged the trinity of Jahannam, Samsara and Zion, which he called Triloki. Mirrors of each other, Triloki served as a home for atman, the crystalline life force which lived at the core of all beings. Grateful to their ruler for such a gift, the children of Nirvana populated Zion, and called one another duta. Here they lived in peace, forgetting their home world though forever reaching to it. The peace lasted until the creation of souls. Souls were atman of lower resonance, given the rule and spaces of Samsara, beyond the next higher mental realms of the Astrals and the barrier world Avernus, in which they would inherit physical form and strengthen until they became duta. None were more revered than the human soul, formed to resemble small, wingless duta. Alas, the atman of souls were far weaker than those of the duta and many of the first race were insulted by the presentation of such a grandiose gift to those they deemed unworthy. The desire or even need to take form, whether plant, animal or thing, was to be despised and ranked as lowly. To those of that mind, humans were no more than well-shaped monkeys, brought to existence to amuse the higher forms. In addition, they argued that they were perpetually children, requiring guardians and teachers from the race of their betters. They saw them as talented but foolish pets. The opposition regarded all atman as valuable and the expression of yet undeveloped Seraph, the highest resonance a life could attain before returning to Nirvana, the unknown reaches where The Perpetual Light and their king emanated from. Thus, they deserved equal respect and love.
A balance was struggled for, but opposing factions spurned peace, using their differences to forge a great divergence. The Conflict of Hosts saw the people of Zion hammered apart, families broken and lines ended. A great many of the duta were punished for their crimes against the souls. They used them abysmally to fill their own desires, when they had been given the task of watching over them in Samsara during the beginning days. The offending duta were cast into the buried Jahannam where they made a new race called danava. The darkness of the lower realm, cut off from the Perpetual Light of King Adonai and cast far below the Samsara, turned the danava into cruel monsters and shadows. Some believe that the conflict never ended and that it rages to this day, that the danava struggle for control of Samsara as a way to conquer and return to Zion, using the souls they stake claim to as soldiers and bartering chips. Their failure to realize that their defiance caused the decay of their atman blinded them to the ultimate price, complete death in Oblivion, a world of utter destruction.
The conflict carried with it a further price. The beings born from the light, by choice or by substance, were flawed and incomplete. Duta and soul alike were required to undergo risings to ensure the purity of their atman. Those bent toward the dark would fall, while those of the light would rise. A complicated system built around this process, cloistering the king and his advisors away from those they loved, protected by endless levels of councils all tasked with the guidance of each and every atman in existence, with it came the troubles of bureaucracy…
Gediel knelt behind a layer of thick brush just in view of a wide glade and an old broken grotto. The place was the most beautiful in all of Eden. The appraisal was biased, for the spot was also the bower of an erela he favored above all others. He hoped with a measure of fear that his black garments, the uniform of his order, would sufficiently hide him from detection. His breath caught a moment, recalling the shining circlet of silver on his crown, the golden wolf coat mane he laid claim to and the silver of his wings, both of which would stand out against the earthy browns of the forest. A single glint from whichever conspicuous attribute, and he would be in grave danger. He tensed, thinking to bury the mark of his rank inside his jacket or put his back to a tree to conceal his appendages, afraid to do either.
The grotto occupied the northern end of a glade. Gediel came to the ancient pool and source of solace to deliver a very special gift. The pool was deep and wide, sprung from nothing in particular and oddly out of place, oddly a near perfect circle. Ages had worn away the hard surfaces that appeared more fitting to a cliff face or sea side. The rock of smoothly carved lines, consisted of a vertical projection and a broad, smooth stone floor, like an irregular stone oyster. The trees of the forest framed the area with a natural canopy, that the missing arch of a cavern. The edge of the pool only ever basked in the late afternoon sun. The glade and its strange pool reminded him of places in Elysion. The southernmost edge of Zion, where he lived outside of the tight confines of society.
Gediel listened to the water move around the erela as she swam, innocent of his spying. A glimpse of her shining, crimson head bobbed above the stone. Something squirmed and whimpered at Gediel’s side, reminding him of why he dared to come there in the first place. He grabbed up the white puff ball and smiled. Argus was just weaned and already endeavoring to roam away to his own pack. His iron-blue eyes sparkled. Gediel snorted, a quick, light sound that startled the puppy. Argus’s ears pricked and he anxiously grumbled. Regaining his confidence, he licked Gediel’s hand. He was perfect for the job. The pup was the most handsome, loyal and brave ever to grace his packs, at least since his sire, Chiron. The seventh born in the alpha litter, he would bring great luck to his companions once his eyes were gold and his legs were long.
“Argus,” Gediel whispered. “This is where you’ll make your new home.”
Gediel lay back on his belly and showed the pup the view between the tangled brush. The pup stared and then lost interest, squirming to get back on his own feet. Gediel gave him a hard stare and the pup relaxed. He set him in the grass and the pup looked at him with a cocked head. Gediel pushed back a shock of his shaggy hair. He wanted to see clearly and remember this moment perfectly. Leaving this particular soul would be difficult, but it was worth every pang to be sure his friend was safe and her order well equipped for their battles.
“You see the duta? That’s an erela,” Gediel pointed to the ring of stone. “She needs you.”
Argus offered Gediel his paw. He sniffed his hand, and gave a lick to the sharp markings embedded in his skin. For some reason, the pups thought the marks would come clean, but they were there to stay. Each was earned in hard battle or the brand of his clan.
“You’re obliged to listen, Argus. This is important.”
Argus set his paw down and sat up straight to attention. He stared hard at the svargaduta speaking to him. Argus was intriguingly smart. Gediel sighed, wishing that somehow he could keep him despite the future he knew the animal was meant to endure.
“Now, you see her, just there,” he pointed. “Her name is Maiel. She’s a member of the Order of the Moon. A legionae, who serves General Mikhael. She’s just a draco now, but will soon be an evocati.”
The puppy whimpered as if surprised. His attention slipped to the black circle pinned to the left breast of Gediel’s jacket. The circle was Gediel’s legion order insignia called a penannular, marking his order, his rank and housing the armor that shielded him from the dark. Each such device housed a small atman that allowed it to work.
“That’s right. That means you’ll be a legionae.”
Argus growled. He lowered his front and lifted his haunches. He looked as serious as a young pup could, then wagged his tail.
“I thought you would like that.”
Gediel paused as a mist darkened his pale eyes. Retrieving a small cobalt and silver disk from his pocket, he attached it to a silver collar and fixed it around Argus’s neck. He felt dread as he granted the wolf his first suit of armor, but not at leaving this puppy with his new owner. Rubbing the marks that ran up the sides of his neck, he hoped he did the right thing by being so secretive. The guardians of Walhall, Zion’s armory, had found the request quite strange, but granted his wish. It was time, Maiel receive her companion. Gediel knew from the moment he first beheld Argus that he was meant for a great journey at the side of a great legionae. When the blue eyes finally opened to him, he saw the story lying there written. Gediel only wished he could see the rest of the story so clearly. This was the source of his great dread. Argus’s future, as well as Maiel’s was clouded, a great cause for concern. A svargaduta, an arch such as him, should not have trouble with such basic premonitions. Gediel was alone in sensing the danger. Even Chiron, Argus’s sire, thought him too protective.
Shaking his shaggy head, Gediel decided he simply made excuses to hold onto the pup, grown fond of the whole litter besides. He was sure to regret letting any of them go. Yet, it was not his decision to make, for it was Argus who felt the tug of his destiny and it drew him further from the pack each day since he could walk. Each member of his litter would experience the same. They were souls and free to will.
“Maiel will be good to you,” Gediel told him. “She is a good leader. Keep your pack close to hers and treat them as your own. She will always have your back and you hers. She’s going to need a good friend some day. Someone who can be there no matter the cost.”
Argus soaked in all the words, most likely understanding half. Suddenly he barked, loud and quick. Gediel jumped. He grasped Argus to his side and pressed to the ground peering through the bushes.
Maiel stopped swimming and dashed the water from her face. The aqua light of her eyes flashed as they scanned the tree line. The bend of each red wing framed her head. Lifting herself on the rock ring of her pool, she peered in their direction. Her eyes had not found their hiding spot yet, but she searched with precision for the source of the noise. An angry look flattened her beautiful mouth.
“Just lovely, Argus,” Gediel hissed. “This isn’t how I wanted to introduce you. She was just supposed to find you after I had gone. She’ll never take you as a gift from me.”
Argus whimpered apologetically, wrapping his paws around his head.
“It’s too late for sorry now,” Gediel whispered to him, stammering as Maiel rose from the water not wearing a thread.
The rumors were true. The water drained from her naked ivory curves and his mouth went dry. Her very long and very wet hair thankfully covered her breasts. Her sleek body, marked by delicate clan symbols, bore a knot work girdle about her hips and across her lower back. His eyes were helplessly drawn to where they had no business going. Between the blades of her shoulders, where her wings connected to flesh, another working of the knots rested, spreading across her shoulders and down her spine. In the center of her chest lay a marking like a medallion, the seal of her heart, the place her match’s symbol would appear upon their wedding. He cast his eyes down, swallowing hard, knowing he had seen too much just the same. He breathed hard into the dirt. Shaking, he shoved Argus into the brush. Maiel stalked in their direction. If she caught him spying on her, she was sure to be angry. Only Adonai, the king of all, knew what she would be capable of then.
Gediel trembled against the ground, warring between a desire of being caught and retreating into the woods where she could not catch him. He let his feelings be hidden too long, but he was frozen with doubt. Would she ever wear his symbol? The girl had a tendency to exact reprisals for crass foolishness. He once heard a tale of how she hunted a man on the planet Earth, down in the Samsara, for daring to look at her. More likely it was an atrin, a male danava, who crossed her path while she guarded one of her charges. The danava still tried to mate with humans and whatever other soul they could put their defiling hands on, even all these centuries since The Conflict. At least, it was rumored so, but her nakedness showed how true some rumors could be.
Argus growled from inside the brush. His attention was on the naked duta who carefully approached. His puffy tail wagged mischievously. Gediel quickly found his feet and, without another glance back, he darted into the forest and the mist in the safe distance. A gray trail shimmered behind him, gradually fading from view like slow moving smoke.
On the opposite side of a thick tree, the svargaduta found refuge. He was sure the erela pursued him, so he held his body in a tall stiff line against the bark. His mind raced, seeking an escape from that wood. Nothing he faced in any mission to Erebus or Abaddon was as frightening as being found spying on Maiel, let alone when she was naked. He imagined her taking the form of a brown panther. Argus barked and yipped playfully. The sound was far away. He waited for the delicate pad of wide paws on leaves, which would tell him the hunt had begun.
Gediel cautiously turned to see, peeking around the girth of the tree. The brush he had crouched behind was a distant ring of green. He had travelled much farther than he estimated. Argus stared into the woods, trying to find where Gediel had gone. He whimpered, looking frightened and lost.
“Go back,” Gediel hissed to himself, barring his teeth.
Maiel pressed through the ring of bushes. His breath caught. Her body was fully exposed to his eyes. With wings spread wide, she signaled her readiness to fight whatever or whoever dared to be there; an astral Diana protecting her sanctuary. Her sapphire topped gladius glinted in her hand, glowing along the silver blade. He shut his eyes and knocked his forehead against the tree, condemning himself for sneaking around her bower.
“A puppy,” he heard her say. “What are you doing here alone, little one?”
Maiel knelt down and picked up the white puppy. She turned him over and gasped.
“A wolf soul,” she sounded puzzled. Her eyes looked about, searching for the parents, or the master. “Where is your mother, little one? Who left you here?”
Argus barked at her and wagged his tail.
“I am sure you’re very hungry. When was it you last saw her?”
Gediel shut his eyes, hoping Argus would not betray him.
Argus stared at Maiel with cheerful eyes. He panted and wagged his tail, forgetting his former master.
Maiel laughed, “All right then. Keep your secrets. I’ll get you some dinner and then we’ll look for her.”
Maiel stood, cuddling the puppy close to her. Argus licked her face and she laughed. Gediel watched her disappear through the brush. Her hair wound into a braided bun at the back of her head. He exhaled his relief against the bark of the tree. He had succeeded in placing the pup. Now, he just needed to escape the wood in one piece.
“Maiel!” Gediel heard her name called.
It was Joel, Maiel’s exceptionally gifted twin brother. Joel gained command of a unit under Mikhael a century ago, very shortly after becoming a soldier in the sun order. It was rumored his sister was even more gifted and would be granted the next, as her Captain was slated to leave a vacancy in the near future.
Joel stood taller than his sister by more than a head and his hue was the tone of gold. He was broader and bolder of personality and his body bore the marks of their family clan and the many battles he waged that much stronger. Their eyes were the most obvious link of their relation. Where she was shy he was daring. If he was the sun, she was the moon.
Gediel rose on the tips of his boots to see past the ring of brush. Maiel put Argus on the ground and dashed for the nearest tree, her concentration broken. Her long crimson hair slipped down her back. Her wings spread wide and she leapt to a high branch to hide from their eyes. She crouched next to the trunk, wrapping her wings and hair about her, as they stepped into the grotto. Gediel looked to Joel as he entered the space. At his side stood a human, who wore the same uniform of the Sun Order, and even claimed a sun shaped penannular. Being a member of the legions was not permission to enter any space and abuse the populace they found there.
Gediel’s eyes narrowed and he gnashed his teeth at the betrayal. His wolfish wings spread defensively. The audacity of her brother was to be expected. He thought a great many things he did were humorous, especially at the expense of his siblings. Maiel was an unwed girl, a virgin. She prided herself on that status, now that she focused on the glory of a warrior’s life, instead of being groomed as an alder for the councils, like her parents. She let no man of any race peer upon her naked flesh without dire recourse. Tempering his anger, he stood rooted at the base of the tree. He was unable to run to her rescue. Such a rash action would ruin his successful placement of the pup. If she called for help, he would answer, but not until she called. Yet, there she crouched, like a cornered kitten, trying to conceal her vulnerable body. Gediel’s eyes flashed with silver ice. What had become of the lioness? Why did she not fight?
“Maiel!” Joel called again. He seemed rather amused by finding her so helpless. “Come down. My friend Dominic has come to supper. Show more hospitality than that, khata.”
“Akha,” Maiel called back. “Accept my regrets, but I am in no condition to entertain your friends, unless you mean to call me to a licentious end.”
Joel laughed at her tremulous response.
“It is I who regret, dear girl,” Dominic spoke, wearing a rather wry grin. “I would not have allowed my friend to lead me here, had I known in what condition we would find the great warrior, his sister.”
“Pretty words. What is it they call you?” Maiel asked, hiding beneath her wings and climbing further behind the tree. Pink blossoms stained her cheeks. “Dominic, yes, I know you—and you should know that no one places an eye on my flesh without a taste of my sword for it. You had best leave.”
Dominic stared up at her speechless and unhindered by her warning. Joel struck Dominic’s shoulder with the back of his hand. The human was mesmerized.
“That she does mean,” Joel said, grinning. “Come to the house—and meet our parents. This is no time to tell her. Likely her friend Zaajah is waiting to ambush us from behind this broken cave. I do not wish to wrestle two devil cats. Though the dark tigress is a treasure to hold. You’re welcome to tangle with the other if you want to stay. It is your right.”
“Tell me what?” Maiel called down from the tree, peering further round the trunk that hid her. “Speak, or you will see a devil cat. I will tell Zaajah what you have said. Be mindful of your words or the dark tigress will hear them.”
“Your betrothal, khata. Adonai has decided it is time you become a wife and stop wandering the wastes without aim,” Joel answered, casting his eyes back on her. His aspect revealed some regret. His eyes shifted to Dominic. “Come. You don’t want to wait out this storm.”
“A wife?” Maiel questioned. “What horror is this? Why does he not come himself to deliver such news? At least my Captain.”
Gediel barred his teeth. The sun-soldiers turned away. The human was not just some friend he brought along for a laugh. Joel was known to command a mixed regiment of humans and duta. Those granted the special status were trained in the ways of the beings they would rise to become sooner than any other humans; a special group of souls who emerged in their existence as yet undecided between the two beings. Joel had a special knack for this type of human, often marked for their guardianship, though his leadership ability made him indispensable to the armies.
All the words bandied to and fro settled on his mind. The Realization that her match had been made flagrantly stalked before him. His eyes searched the forest, trying to decipher who it could be from the endless stream of knowledge he held. Was there any engel among them that could make a decent husband for such an erela? He swallowed, hoping it was himself but hope wilted. The match stood beside Joel. What else would this human dare to come there for, daring to view an erela without a shred on her finely sculpted limbs? Though matches were always a matter for celebration, and all friends were invited to enjoy a feast with the family, Gediel doubted Joel would personally bring one of his soldiers to partake as if in a place of honor. Known for his sense of humor, Joel may have been seeking simple amusement from the association, but that was wishful, if not desperate, thinking.
Gediel’s gaze shot to Maiel when the others were gone. Her body shook with sobs. His gut clenched and tears blurred his eyes. Pressing his back to the tree, he looked up to the sky. The brilliant blue mocked him. The match made no sense. It was profane to take one such as her and give her to so unworthy a mate. The intelligence he had in regards to the erela did not include any inkling of such a development. His body pulsed with panic and he feared he had lost his capacity. His mouth drew into a hard, flat line. Clenching his fists and jaw, he locked his anger deep inside, because it drew from only one source.
Intending to find out the truth, Gediel quickly left the wood. A pang shook through his chest. He paused in his retreat, clamping a hand over the spot. Sucking in his breath, he growled a curse at his weakness. It was not possible to feel this way. He drew up straight, scowling at the wood. Once he had the truth he could worry about his ill placed attachment. The wisest action to take when he confirmed what he overhead would be to exile himself. He must save his atman from falling, by sparing himself the sight of her. He looked over his shoulder one last time, and then disappeared in an arch of light.
Maiel wept into her hands. The news her twin brother brought must simply be wrong. She trembled against the awful lie. A sense of damnation suffocated her breath. Her chest tightened and twinges of grief crumpled her body. She sat on the branch, wondering how this could come to pass. She only knew it felt like a terrible lie. Was Adonai so cruel or had she done something to deserve his wrath? Swatting the hot tears from her eyes, she tried to stop crying over the news. Adonai did not make matches. Matches were made by the atman that gave them their life-force. Yet, hers felt as though it would break apart if this were allowed to happen. There was nothing that had ever shaken her so wholly. Her match should have been a joyous occasion that made her swell with happiness, but the announcement fell on her shoulders like a poisonous shroud. Her gut twisted, warning the lies and what would come of them. She knew her emotions too well to not think that this meant something was wrong.
Though her mind reeled, Maiel understood clearly that Joel’s friend was who they meant. This Dominic would not have been present at her pool if he was merely a guest at the party they were throwing. The human had been a part of Joel’s unit for a very long time, working toward his perfection and hoping to rise. They had never been introduced, as they were both quite busy with their own lives, but she knew of the friendship and recognized his face. She admittedly knew a bit more than that. Dominic was an ambitious man, if not manifestly arrogant. He was as tall as most duta and claimed golden features, which seemed to mark him for partiality. Many of the unmatched women favored him. He would have been better suited to one of them, not an erela far beyond his resonance. In fact, no erela batted a lash in his direction. Maiel sniffed at her own lie. Well, not none. A few. Perhaps, more than a few. Her stomach twisted with disgust.
Maiel rolled her eyes, giving in to the idea that she found the human attractive. Yet, his pleasant looks only meant he was trouble. She imagined the blond soldier vainly prancing in the practice yards for any and all who would watch. Despite everyone knowing the rumors of her violence against those who spied, he had the audacity to try it. It would have served him right if she gave him a look at her ugly side and slapped him solidly with its paws. Maiel sniffed. Her thoughts turned to those she could blame for this development. The alders. Alders counseled all beings along their paths, but a section of them favored the humans above all others. They had taken King Adonai’s orders to respect the human peoples as an order to lavish them with all their desires. Dominic’s placement in her brother’s regiment was no happenstance of destiny. All things taken together showed that those in power favored this man greatly.
From the corner of her eye, Maiel saw a wisp of gray coil through the distant wood. When she turned her gaze in the apparition’s direction, it had gone. She stared into the forest, trying to see if the ghost would show again. Then, she suddenly remembered a ball of white fur.
“The puppy,” she gasped and climbed down the tree.
The pup stood on his hind legs between the roots of her tree, attempting to scale the trunk and reach her. He looked absurdly determined. She picked him up and returned to the shade of the grotto. Her garments lay discarded on the stone floor, just behind one of the marble benches. She set the pup down and then wrapped herself in the creamy muslin fabric. The pup swatted at the material while she wound it around and tried to wrestle it from her. As she tucked the last bit about her waste, she saw that the white ball of fur chewed her hem to shreds.
“Oh, no,” Maiel said, clipping a round penannular onto the shoulder of her wrappings. The small shield-shaped object was rimmed in silver with field of cobalt that held a silver moon. “If this day could get any worse.”
Maiel scooped up the puppy and held him out before her. The hem of her shroud knitted its wound.
“I realize you’re very hungry,” Maiel said to him. “But that is no reason to eat my clothes. I will need them. As you can see, the engels are terrible and will make mince of me without them.”
The puppy whimpered.
“Not really—” Maiel smiled. “What do they call you? What shall I call you?”
Argus. The word floated around her mind.
“Argus it is then,” she smiled. “Let’s get you some dinner.”
Tucking the puppy under her arm, Maiel followed after her twin and his guest. It was time to face her destiny like a duta, Adonai willing. She darted back, drawing her sandals from under the bench.
Tramping down the narrow worn path on bare feet, Maiel emerged on another flower filled field. She cradled the puppy on one hip. Her sandals dangled from the other hand. In the distance between tall cyprus, a white marble villa gleamed in the sun. Cresting the hill, she could see the gardens, fountains and pools overwhelmed by guests. She gritted her teeth. Everyone she knew was there. She wanted to run, to find refuge from their congratulations. If only she had remained at the Moon barracks in Arcadia instead of visiting home.
“You look as cheery as a rattle snake,” a voice called from the cyprus row to her left.
Maiel’s eldest brother, Zacharius stood there, dressed in the black robes of his trade. Of the two brothers, it was this one she most resembled. Though the same height as Joel, Zach was of slimmer build and paler color. His hair was crimson like hers. He wore his with the sides tied back behind his ears. His gravely reserved demeanor echoed her own at the moment. Usually, she was a more playful mix of her siblings.
The present brother stepped from the line of trees, regarding her stonily.
“Akha,” Maiel acknowledged him. She clutched the puppy close.
“What is this, you’ve found?”
“It is puppy. And his name is Argus,” Maiel said irritably.
“Argus?” her brother said. “It looks like a wolf, not the keeper of Jahannam’s gate.”
“Zacharius,” Maiel sighed. “I have no patience for your brand of humor right now.”
“Marriage is not a death sentence, khata,” Zach said taking the puppy from her.
Zach lifted Argus before his face and studied him closely. The sleeve of his robe fell back revealing his pale hands. A black sleeve clung tight to his wrist, but the weavings of clan marks snuck from underneath and up the back his right hand. They matched the knot work his sister bore.
“You approve of matching a man with an erela? I have heard you say otherwise.”
“King Adonai would not match you with just any mate.”
“Still, not having any choice,” Maiel muttered. “I feel like a Grigori.”
“You would question Adonai, or just the Alders?” Zach lowered Argus into the crook of his arm. “They took brides that were not theirs. They were adulterers and rapists. You hardly count as either.”
“In anything other than this, I would question neither.”
“You thought perhaps Zaajah would be your match?”
Maiel gave a dry unamused laugh. She was very close to the other erela. They had grown together. There was indeed love between them, but not the same as the engels wished to believe. Still, Zaajah would make a far more reasonable match than marriage with a human. She was not her match, but was within her resonance. They must have understood that danger. They risked her welfare by placing her in bonds with a human. Did they not even consider someone among her other friends?
“No not, Zaajah,” Maiel said. “We are just sisters.”
“Perhaps the likely deliverer of this package?” Zach teased, holding up the white wolf pup.
“Most certainly not,” She blushed.
“Peace in your heart,” Zach smiled, eyeing her profile. “You’re not being led idly. Though I don’t exactly see the good of it, your alders do. Think of it—” He cut off, seeing something cross her eye. He grimaced and continued. “Think of it as a mission.”
Zach again lifted the puppy before his face. The small ball of white fur tried to lick his face, but found a stony response for his enthusiasm. Maiel longingly watched her new friend in the hands of her brother. The wolf was very handsome already. She wavered between finding his mother and raising him herself. He would make a strong soldier and perhaps even a brilliant leader. The pup panted, eyeing her in return. Her affection was won. She frowned wanting to keep him and fearing that a guardian would soon be by to collect him.
“He has lost his way,” Maiel explained. “I was just going to feed him and then look for his mother.”
“He’s weaned,” Zach murmured. “I think he means you to be his dam, now.”
Zach handed the puppy back to her, indicating the penannular he wore. She stared at it as if it would burn her.
“Not that you won’t be too busy with your own litter soon,” he looked to her with a tiny curl to the corner of his mouth.
“Not amusing. They wish me to bed and bare children for a human. This is most dreadful,” Maiel said.
The symbol about the wolf’s neck was forgotten for the moment. Zach petted the puppy’s head cheerless.
“You as a mother, isn’t amusing in the least, dear khata.”
“That is not what I meant,” Maiel said.
“Come!” Zach clapped his hands. “You’ll be late for your own party. You know how mother and Aunt are. At least you will have Zaajah to comfort you. Who knows, perhaps Adonai will give her to you in his stead, when he sees you so miserable.”
“Would that he could. I would have any other mate but this.”
Zach turned and made his way toward the garden and the gathered revelers. Maiel threw her sandals at his back, but they fell to the ground impotent, stopped by some invisible barrier. She stared after him, clutching the puppy to her chest like a shield. Argus’s little belly vibrated with a growl. Then a bark puffed from his small muzzle.
“What is it?” Maiel asked, bouncing him like a fussy infant.
Someone standing behind her cleared their throat. Maiel rounded. She had been so lost in her thoughts that she had not heard the approach.
“I apologize for earlier,” a voice said.
Maiel’s eyes met with Dominic’s. He tried to smile at her, but she only glared, silent as a stone. The light of her eyes flared and he appeared stayed for the moment. He gathered up her sandals and offered them to her.
“Did you ask for this?” she blurted, tears standing in her eyes. She snatched her sandals from his hands. “I know you are favored by powerful Alders.”
“I would not. A man does not ask for such things. It is as much a surprise to me as it is to you,” Dominic answered.
Maiel cast her gaze away before she cried in front of him. She faced her mother’s garden and scowled, pouring all her angst into vigorously patting the puppy’s bottom. The family put out dozens of trays of food and lit the torches. How could they celebrate this miserable thing? Her brothers had not even been matched yet. Something was more than very peculiar. She was the last of her siblings to settle on her path and a match at this time, being still a youngling in the eyes of her alders, would be considered outlandish among any duta. She had only just gained status as a full soldier. Her martial practice should have been the focus of her near future, not starting a family.
“Here,” Dominic said taking Argus from her. “Where did you find this fur ball?”
Dominic looked at the puppy in his arms, cradling him carefully. He tried to pet his muzzle but got his small finger locked in a set of sharp jaws. Maiel spluttered, attempting to not laugh. The man was an oaf.
“Hungry boy,” Dominic said grinning.
Argus barked at him and whipped his tail. Both of them appeared very proud of themselves.
“I was going to feed him when Zach startled me,” Maiel sniffed, wanting to take Argus back, but afraid to touch the man holding him.
“Is there anything I can get you?” Dominic asked sensing her trepidation.
“Away from here,” Maiel whispered. Her shoulders tightened and her frown deepened.
Dominic tucked Argus under his arm and took hold of her hand. She could feel the calluses from holding a sword. He gently urged her along, but she could feel the restrained power in his arm. It stirred odd feelings inside her core and the aching agony ebbed.
“That I can do.”
Maiel gawked then avoided his gaze as he led her back toward her pool. Buzzing ripples of energy waved through her body. He set her on the stone bench and placed the puppy in her lap. Wandering to the edge of the water, he waited. The man watched the wind blow the tall grass of the field. Maiel felt the energy surge again. She scrutinized him from head to toe while his back was turned. She tried to imagine how his atman was the other half of hers. There was no way they were hewn from the same crystal. His energy was so different. Lore said her kind was born of rock and flame. His kind were of the moist clay, and had to undergo many trials to earn wings, literally reforming themselves in the process. What was it that the king had noticed between them?
Dominic’s presence was not unsettling, but neither was it comforting. She recalled each encounter or passing they had. Never did she pay him deference. The brief moments only stood out as suspect in light of where they now stood. She barely remembered his name and knew no member of his clan. Oddly, she had yet to cleave him with her blade, or prickle him full of arrows either. That was at least a start, though it could be blamed on the lack of weaponry with which to complete such a task.
Squinting at the back of his head, Maiel asked herself why she also did not remember his energy. If they were of the same it should have been familiar. There was no memory, no vague suspicion. He was as foreign to her as the new class of children in the Ordo Prioria.
“Did they tell you anything?” Maiel asked, unable to figure the answers.
Maiel watched him slowly turn back to her, regretting she spoke. It was hard to keep her eyes on him. He wore the uniform tunic of her brother’s regiment, the gold breastplate and other pieces of armor were put away inside the sun penannular on his breast. His clean shaven face was much more handsome than she first surmised. He scrubbed a hand through his yellow hair and smiled crookedly. His skin appeared unmarked and his eyes held no light, like most of his race. They reminded her of green jade. All they had in common was the nearness of their age and a similar pursuit of labor—and her brother.
“No—not really,” he lied.
“Tell me,” Maiel begged, setting Argus at her feet.
Argus skittered toward the edge of the pool. Maiel jumped up to pull him back and found herself very close to the man she had been hoping to keep a distance from.
“Please tell me what they told you?” She asked, incapable of looking away from his eyes.
Dominic eyed her then shrugged. A smile curled his mouth. He bit his lip and searched her eyes. When she cocked her head to the side and silently pleaded, he grinned and shook his head.
“Am I that atrocious?”
“Atrocious?” Maiel repeated, scowling. “But, you must understand that I am—”
“A duta and I am a man, never the twain shall meet. Mating apes and doves is an abomination. I have heard it before, but I did not think the sister of my best friend thought those things.”
“If it is destined by Adonai, then they shall. I was going to say that I am taken off guard by this.”
“And, you’re never taken off guard?”
“Never,” Maiel looked to see Argus crawling from the pool with a small fish in his mouth. He shook his fir dry.
“You must be slipping, erela,” Dominic said.
“Between the two of you, I have never had such a bizarre day,” Maiel murmured, watching the puppy eat the fish.
“It’s the best supper for him,” Dominic smiled. “You don’t want him to grow up soft—if he’s to be a war dog.” Dominic led her back to the bench. “The shades will not go easy on him, a puppy or not.”
“I suppose they wouldn’t,” Maiel said watching Argus chew.
Cocking her head to the side, the young erela thought of the Order of Fenrir, who was responsible for such creatures in Zion. Mostly she thought of one of their leaders. He was a close friend of hers, often joining her unit at their parties or hanging about for no reason. His alpha pack had a litter some time ago and were promised to be the best yet. This white pup resembled a particular animal who kept the wolf leaders side. She smiled softly thinking of the engel’s unique appearance. His lustrous silver eyes distracted her away from the moment.
Maiel sighed and rolled her eyes shut. The gray apparition in the wood explained the presence of the wolf pup. She could only hope Gediel had not been in the woods, but the fleeting shimmer of earlier told her he had. Her gut twisted, realizing that he had been watching her bathing and that he overheard Joel’s news. She should have gone further into the woods, avoiding her brother and giving her forward friend a solid beating.
“What is it?”
“Nothing,” Maiel lied.
Dominic frowned at her lie. She raised a brow, meeting that expression defiantly. A mate was not one you could hide things from, even if you just met them. She gave a small frown of her own. It looked like he was her match. But, then, why did she think of another?
“We have plenty of time to understand each other,” Dominic said sitting at her side.
The man’s gaze surveyed the grotto, then returned to her. While he was distracted, Maiel noticed a line of jagged marks peeped above his uniform collar. Her eyes snapped to his as his face came around. He raised a brow at her this time and scratched the back of his neck self-conscious of her glance.
“There is no need to reach the wedding bed tonight,” he said.
Maiel looked stricken. Her ivory features turned ghost white and then flooded a brilliant red. Her eyes flashed silver lightning.
“No need,” Dominic repeated, holding his hands up in surrender.
Maiel’s eyes narrowed and he laughed.
“You’re brother said you could be prickly,” Dominic said.
“You’re brave,” Maiel growled.
“You wanted to know what I know?” He asked, giving his slanted grin. She nodded. “Then don’t run me through with your blade quite yet.”
“I suggest you speak quickly,” Maiel said, producing a small knife from his belt.
“I can’t tell you,” Dominic said, gently pushing it aside. He wore a mischievous look. “I have to show you.”
Maiel marveled at the bold proposition. He was more than brave to dare such a trick. He must know she could summon her squad to her aid and be done with this ludicrous match in a few short moments. Maiel questioned why she didn’t. She sat there, waiting for what he would do next, like some smitten adolescent.
“Here,” he said, noticing the perfect tilt of her head.
Dominic awkwardly leaned his face closer to hers, submissively holding his hands out. He slowly closed in, testing each inch. She watched in shock. Her mouth opened to speak, but her voice failed her in the face of such brazen behavior. Worse, she had never been so solicitous, unless it was an imp who crossed her path and asked to be run through. His lips touched hers, lightly and he pulled back to judge her mood. Maiel could not have moved if she wanted to run or strike. His crooked grin returned. Then, his mouth was on hers and he closed her in his embrace. Her eyes fluttered closed. Then, everything became a tornado of sensation as their mouths labored to express what they could not with words. She could hear Argus growl and yip, just before her senses numbed to everything but the world that danced inside her mind. The kiss grew urgent, as if he had just come home after a long tour on Earth—as if she had always known him.
The kiss broke. Argus tugged at the laces of his sandals to free her. Already the pup played guardian. Maiel snatched him up before Dominic reacted to the nuisance. He seemed little bothered by it, holding his gaze on her. She stroked Argus’s ears, uncomfortable under the appraisal.
“Will you help me?” Dominic asked.
Maiel had no answer for him. Her mind was too scattered to make such a decision. He reached to scratch Argus’s ears and was immediately snapped at. His hand jolted back and Maiel laughed. He was handsome, but not quite so arrogant as he let on. Rather, he was a bit clumsy and foolish. He needed a great deal of help, if he meant to rise.
“I will help you.”