Chapter VII

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Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, Present Day

MICHAEL FOUND THE HATCH to the tunnel leading to the place he once feared—the underground house Kreios built long ago, the place where he once fell in love with Airel, the place where he betrayed her, and the place where she died. It was a lifetime ago, as if a dream, yet coming back here seemed like the only thing to do.

"Hello?" he called to the empty room. A fire crackled in the hearth, indicating that someone had been here.

Thundering, Kreios flew into the room and pinned Michael to the wall a few feet off the floor. Michael was taken aback and Kreios glowed, white eyes flaming. "What do you want here, son of the damned?"

Michael struggled, but it was of no use. "I need your help . . . why are you so . . . ?"

Kreios lowered Michael and returned to his normal appearance. "Michael, I—" He took a few steps away and stared into the fire. It was dark outside, and snow was falling in huge, tumbling flakes.

"I talked with Ellie—"

Kreios spun around. "When? Why did you not stop her—where is she?"

Michael held up his hands. "This was a couple of days ago, and no. I don't know where she is. I was hoping she was here."

"Continue."

It was Michael's turn to be angry. "Where were you? Airel is in a coma and you hide here? She needs you, Kreios, or did you forget that she's your granddaughter?"

Kreios lowered his head. "I should kill you for what you will become. But there are other matters . . ."

"No, there is Airel. No other matters, not the end of the world, not some stupid Bloodstone—only Airel. I'm leaving; I have no choice. Who will be here to make sure she's safe? Not you, apparently."

"She is safe enough. As long as she sleeps, no harm will come to her."

"And how do you know that? Some angel power or something?"

Kreios did not respond.

"That's what I thought."

"It calls to you Michael, does it not?"

Michael suddenly felt naked. The angel knows too much.

"You are growing weak. It is written all over you, boy." The angel snorted. "What will your decision be?"

Michael pretended not to be alarmed, but it was mostly for his own pride. If Kreios knew of his mental problems of late, there was no telling what else he might know. "I have an idea of how we might be able to destroy the Bloodstone, but I need your help."

Kreios dropped his hands. "Speak."

* * *

Elsewhere...

IN MY DREAMS, I walked among the crumbling foundations of a building made of stone. It had been burned and was still smoking, its roof and doors—all those things that made it a place of safety—consumed and converted to smoke and ash and carried off to eternity by the winds. Most of its walls had been thrown down but some still stood, spaces for once-beautiful panes of colorful glass now empty, gaping open into the gray netherworld outside.

As I looked on, time revolved around me, and the ruins cooled and the floors in the building rotted and fell and decayed. From their detritus, from the ash of those fuels which had refused to fully burn but had instead fallen directly into the center of the building, I saw tender green shoots pushing up through the black ground.

The place felt vaguely familiar, but I didn't know why.

The sun pierced through a high round window that had been cut into the gable. There was no glass to restrict the life-giving warmth of this beam of sunshine. Like a fountain of life and warmth, it flowed down and around the leaves and stems and roots of the green shoots, caressing them and urging them upward into itself.

The walls were taller than I had first thought. The destruction was not as complete as I had imagined, and the building these foundations had been designed to hold could have been immense. If only . . .

Then I noticed an open space off to the side. There, resting against one wall, were large shards of mirror. They leaned at all angles, their reflections showing in one piece, the sun; in another, the gray skies; in another, the blackened stone of the walls. As I approached, most of them reflected bits of me.

I drew nearer and could plainly see that each reflection was different. Each one showed a different me—I was an infant with lots of dark brown hair, dozing in my father's arms. I was a little girl wearing a sundress in the kitchen with my mom and she was making jam, the smell tart and bright. I was a scared freshman walking to class on my first day of high school, hiding behind my long brown hair, my arms crossed over a thick American history text. I was the pariah who had just buried her best friend. I was the girlfriend of Michael Alexander.

Darkness stole in. There was subtraction, and I felt loss for the first time.

Looking around, I saw that the plants were there, but they were still. They had gone mostly dormant and dead brown. The sun hid itself above and beyond the clouds. The walls around me were dry and cracked; they looked as if they might topple over in a stiff breeze.

I suddenly understood why this place felt so familiar to me. This building is my life. And it was in ruins.

I looked back to the mirrors now, and the strangest thing was happening. The whole assembly began to rotate like a pinwheel in the wind, and I understood that each of these versions of me had fallen short of El's plan for my life. The pinwheel became a saw blade.

I began to gasp for air; I fell to my knees.

The spinning mirrors now started to rotate independently, a jagged kaleidoscope showing millions of versions of me, of Airel, the invisible girl, now reflected and on display as she truly was, no masks, no lies, and no illusions. Just me. Just me and everything I had done and missed in life. I felt like an utter failure.

Then the kaleidoscope sped up and became merged into one image: It was me—it wasn't me. It was like me—it wasn't like me. Perhaps I was like it—maybe that was more accurate. It was masculine, it was feminine, it was neither. It was a presence.

I was very still. I was filled with more fear than I had ever felt before; I was filled with joy to bursting. She?

"Stand."

I stood, slowly. "Who are you?"

"You already know."

I was silent, my mind flitting like a bird from one branch of thought to another—school crushes, funerals. Weddings, family trips, my first loose tooth. Relationship drama. Grades. Seasons. I realized that I was only one of many created beings for whom everything had slipped out of control. This happened to everyone. It was normal. Intentional. Part of the design. How could that be part of the plan? Isn't it imperfect? Flawed?

"Life under the sun is found in places like this, Airel. The flaws serve the truth by bearing witness to just how true Truth is. Mountains are mountains not just because of themselves, but because of the valleys that show their size, scope, and grandeur."

I soaked in this. "But I feel so inadequate. Like such a failure. If I could have had more time . . . I could have done more. I could have been more."

"You keep trying to do things alone, in your own power, but you miss the real strength. True power only comes by trusting in what is beyond you."

I began to weep. But why?

"Because I love you."

"Yes," I argued again, "but why?"

I felt She smile, and the sun shattered the clouds high above, spilling over me like water, cascading over every part of me, warming me. "I will never leave you. I love you just as you are, but I will not leave you that way."


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