Morin loved his new life. Everywhere he went, people greeted him with a smile. Everyone recognized him. People who’d used to bully him now respected him—at least a little bit. His troubles were by no means over, but they sure had calmed down.
Presently, he walked through the town of Chaldin with his head held high. The crisp, cool air felt good to breathe in. Leaves from various types of trees fell and littered the ground. The houses and shops around him were made of logs and hard clay. The road he walked on was a two-track meant for horses and carts.
He thought about visiting his favorite shops now, as he had a lot of money to spare. He had given some feathers to his friends and kept some for himself, but sold most of them. The bones from the wings had made the most money, though.
In truth, he felt bad for the angel he’d killed for this. She had looked so human. She was scared. That was why she had fought back. Of course she would hit him with all she had, a twenty-pound rock included. Morin’s ribs still hurt. What hurt him most wasn’t a physical wound, though. It was the angel’s final resignation as he cut her wings off. He knew very well now that she could have killed him when he turned his back. If he was in her place, he would have.
A well-known hunter in Chaldin named Dave beckoned him to a shop that resembled a bar of sorts. It was mostly empty except for Dave, the shop owner, and two non-descript bums. Changing course, Morin headed over to it.
“So, you got yourself an angel,” Dave said, slapping him on the back. “Good job, kid. Didn’t kill her, though.”
“No,” Morin said, surprised that Dave knew. “How’d you know?”
“It shows all over you, man. Angels are pretty. You’re going through puberty. There’s no way you could kill a cute girl, human, angel, demon, or even a pure bloodangel.”
“Ah, don’t worry,” Dave said, waving it off. “There’s angels, dark angels, archangels, and bloodangels—in that order of intensity. Angels are the only ones it’s possible to survive against in a fight.”
“But you can kill angels without a problem,” Morin pointed out. He shivered at the idea that there could be a creature with more power than the angel he’d fought. “Do you just get used to it after awhile?”
“There’s that. When I was fifteen, I couldn’t kill any girl angels either. But now, killing is my business. And business is good.”
“Very good,” Morin agreed. “I could live for ten years off what I have now.”
Dave laughed heartily. “That’s part of the beauty of angel hunting! Only bad part is, if everyone starts hunting, prices are gonna skyrocket. Then what happens when we run out of angels?”
Morin had a sarcastic comment prepared to go along with the joke, but then he realized that it might not be a joking matter. What would happen when angels went extinct? He laughed along with Dave, but walked home lost in thought. He took a hundred silver note from his pocket and stared at it. This sheet—this piece of paper—could buy him a top-quality sword, maybe even a magically imbued weapon or piece of armor. And this was just one feather.
One feather could set him off for a long time.
He had taken all of them. He had cut a girl’s wings off and left her to die while he went and became rich. She was just an angel, though. It was perfectly acceptable to kill angels.
Angels were humans with wings. Beautiful humans with wings. Morin could accept taking their feathers, but was it totally necessary to kill them? Most hunters assumed it was naïve to believe you could capture one alive. And yet, Morin had done just that. He could have hauled her back to the village . . . and then what?
He reached his house. His parents were out, as usual. They were the first people he’d forgotten on his list of people to brag to. He flopped down on his bed and pulled a feather from under his pillow. He held it up to the light. Beams shined around it, and brightened it. It was a pure, bright white that not a single other living thing had. Its radiance transfixed him. He didn’t know how long he stared at it, but when he snapped out of his trance, there was someone else in the house.
Morin stood up. Nobody answered him, but he knew someone was there. He considered the possibility of it being a thief after the angel feathers. He held the feather out in front of him as he rounded the corner to check on his chest, as if it would protect him.
Morin had never seen something so fast, or felt something so powerful. His already-bruised ribs screamed as he crashed into the door. He shook it off as best he could and tried to stand up. He didn’t know who his opponent was, and he didn’t care. He just wanted to get out.
A hand closed around his neck and threw him back into the house as he tried to escape. One more pound of force and it would have broken.
“Morin was your name, right?”
Morin looked up. His attacker was roughly two or three years older than him, about six inches taller, much more muscular, and to top it off, he was unarmed. Pure white wings grew from his back, but unlike the girl angel from before, this angel had another set of wings, plenty smaller, just behind and below the first.
He was an archangel.
The next thing he knew, he was pinned against the wall. One of the angel’s hands was around his neck. The other was by his side, completely relaxed. The strength in one of his arms could lift all of Morin’s hundred fifty pounds. He wasn’t even straining.
“Give me that feather.”
An angel, after an angel’s feather? Were angels nowadays also becoming angel hunters? Regardless of what the case was, Morin handed it over. The angel didn’t release him. Dragging Morin behind him, he threw open the door, got a firm hold around his captive’s waist, and took flight.
“Shut up, hunter. If you call for help I’ll drop you.”
Morin shut up. They were about a hundred yards up. The angel was flying without any difficulty, unfortunately. Morin looked down, but only caught a glimpse of the passing scenery before they took a sharp dive. They were headed straight for a very familiar lake. Morin prepared to land in the water, but the angel pulled up at the last moment, dousing him with water, then dropped him on the shore.
“Hunter. Stand up. Now.”
Morin obeyed. He looked around nervously. This was definitely the spot where he’d taken out the first angel. Where was she?
He noticed a small brown-haired bundle of blankets on the ground.
“Arion?” the bundle said quietly. It turned to reveal a familiar face. When the angel girl saw Morin, she closed her eyes.
“I didn’t kill him,” the angel said. “Although it was against my better judgment. Why would you want to spare this trash?”
The girl answered with a question. “Why’d you bring him here?”
The male angel, Arion, knelt beside the girl and gently turned her over. He pulled down the blanket to a point just below her shoulder blades. There was about an inch left of her wings. The blood had dried, but the area around them was swollen and looked painful.
“When you cut off her wings, you left her to die,” Arion said. Morin hesitated, but nodded.
“I didn’t really want to . . .”
“Then why did you? That’s not the point, though. What happens to you humans when you leave a wound open and don’t treat it?”
“It gets infected?”
“Good. What happens when you get your arms cut off and don’t treat it?”
“Well . . . you die.”
Arion seemed to want to slap him, but didn’t. “If I hadn’t found her, she would have died. And then you would be responsible for my little sister’s death. I would have killed you. Instantly.”
It was no joke. Arion was powerful. Morin could tell that much already. His ribs ached even more now. He looked at the wingless angel girl. She was extremely pretty. Morin now wondered what it was that had driven him to hurt someone like this. She couldn’t be more than a year older than him, but she had definitely seen more than he had. She had been on the other end of the angel hunts. Where he saw triumphant hunters returning to the village as heroes, this girl—and the young man—saw murder. Cruel, savage, heartless murder.
He almost cried. He didn’t want to believe that he had condoned this sort of thing. Worse yet, he was responsible for part of it. This girl who lay dying on the ground in front of him was dying only because of him. She needed medical treatment, and she wasn’t getting it.
“Can’t we heal her?” Morin asked, almost afraid to say a word. He was definitely not on Arion’s good side.
Arion shook his head. “We need to get to a doctor. She lost too much blood—needs a transfusion. On top of that, only a few angels are blessed with healing abilities as their primaries. Iris is one. But she can only seal her wounds. She can’t replace what she lost. Wings. Blood. And she can’t get that arrow out.”
Any other time, Morin would have been mad at Arion for calling him out on so many charges. But they were all true.
“You can’t replace her wings,” he said. “Morin, you’ve stolen her flight forever. And sold it. But you can help me get her to a doctor.”
“Chaldin. Your village.”
Morin gaped. “No! Do you know how many hunters there are in my village? If you walked in, you’d be shot on sight.”
Arion smirked. “Worry about yourself. How are your hunter buddies gonna like you after you walk in with an angel and say he’s with you?”
The dirty blackmailer!
Arion collected his sister in his arms. She buried her face in his shoulder and wrapped her arms around his neck. She didn’t say a word. It was then that Morin realized he could easily hide Iris’s race in the village. Angels had wings. Iris didn’t. All he had to do was bribe a single doctor to say he never saw anything on her back, or never felt how inhumanly light she was.
If the doctor saw Iris in the same light as Morin did, it would be no problem. The only flaw in his plan was Arion. As if on cue, the angel said:
“I lied before. I’m staying out of sight, but I’ll be watching you. If anything happens to Iris, you know what happens. Once you get her set in the hospital for the night, tell me what’s going on. I’ll wait in your house.”
“But my parents—”
“Are never home,” Arion finished, cutting him off. Morin didn’t say one more word until they got to the border of the village. A few people on horseback or on foot passed, but every time one did, Morin would look around and not see Arion or Iris anywhere. When the people passed out of sight, he was there, carrying Iris, walking along as if nothing had happened.
“I think I realize just what angel hunting is now,” said Morin, a little hesitant.
“Paid murder. Paid child abuse. Paid rape. Paid genocide. I just can’t look at it the same way anymore.”
“Good. Looks like at least one hunter can gain sense.”
They approached the village. Arion gently handed Iris to Morin. “Protect her with your life,” he said, and flew away. Iris didn’t cling to him, as she had to her brother. Of course not. Who would feel safe around a paid murderer?
He walked briskly into the village. People turned and looked. He passed marketplace stalls, shops, houses, popular hangouts, and even an angel shop that sold angel blood, bones, hair, and wings. Morin made sure Iris didn’t see it. The shopkeepers saw her, though. One of them left the store and fell in pace beside him.
“Morin!” he said cheerfully. Too cheerfully. Morin suspected that he already knew what Iris was. “That’s a very pretty girl you’ve got there. Is she human?”
“She got shot,” Morin said curtly. “I need to get her to a doctor.”
“Shot where? By who?”
“Stomach. By me.”
The shopkeeper stalled for a moment, and Morin used the opportunity to rush over to the hospital. It wasn’t a big place. There were three stories, two reserved for patients. It smelled like medicine on this floor, and Morin knew it would only get worse on the different levels. Upon seeing Iris, a doctor came to them. Morin trusted this one—more or less.
“She got shot. Needs blood, and needs the arrow outta her gut. Can you help her?”
The doctor looked hastily around the floor. Two people sat in chairs on the other side of the room. They didn’t look sick.
“Follow me,” the doctor said. He led Morin behind the desk and into the main office—the one that no one ever saw. He pushed a chair back from a desk piled with papers. He pulled a rug out of the way to reveal a trapdoor. He pulled on the old brass ring and descended a dark staircase.
Morin followed, angling Iris to fit through the small opening. Her foot banged against the floor. Someone must have heard it, but no one came. The doctor took Iris and told Morin to close the trap door. He did as instructed and followed the doctor into a dark, dusty old basement. There was zero visibility until the doctor lit a torch on the wall, followed by a second and a third. Medical supplies of every type were down here, scattered around on tables, hooks, and on the floor. An operating table sat in the middle of the room. The doctor laid Iris down on it and removed her blankets.
“You brought me an angel,” he said. “Morin, do you have any idea what’ll happen if anyone finds out about this? I mean, us helping an angel instead of killing her?”
“Look at her, Kyle!” Morin exclaimed. “She’s beautiful. She could have killed me at any point while I was taking her here, and she didn’t! Besides . . .” he hesitated, then blurted it out, “I’m the one who did this to her.”
Quietly, the doctor asked Iris, “Can you roll over for me?”
Iris rolled onto her side without a sound. Her shirt was cut low enough to reveal her shoulder blades, and with them, full proof that she was an angel. Morin and the doctor stared at the bloody stumps that used to be her wings.
“I can’t heal them,” she said. “I can’t replace anything I lose. I can only fix tissue.”
“That makes my job easier,” the doctor said, sounding relieved. “I’ll have to get these stumps off. Sorry, it’ll hurt. But it’ll let you walk around without someone trying to murder you in the street.”
Murder. Morin liked that the doctor used that word. He saw angel hunting for what it was. Or at least he pretended to. Morin didn’t know for sure at this point.
“Wings aside,” the doctor continued, “you need blood. What type are you?”
“Angels all the same type,” Iris stated. “I just need blood from another angel.” She went silent for a moment, then said, “You’ve killed enough here. You’re bound to have blood somewhere.”
Arion sat in Morin’s house, reading a book. Tales Of Angels was the title. It intrigued him that a hunter would own a book that uplifted the very race he hunted. Maybe he really wasn’t a bad person. He had all sorts of books, but they were all dusty and probably never used. At least not for a long time.
Arion was a fast reader. He finished Tales Of Angels within the hour he picked it up and moved on to the next one. He ran his finger along the rows of books on the single shelf in the house, drawing a line in the dust. Eventually, he reached one that wasn’t dusty. This one had been read recently. He pulled it out and read the title:
'Angel Hunters: A Starter’s Guide'
Arion’s hate for Morin flared up again. He flipped the book open to see what kind of lies the human had been reading.
'Many angel hunters do not enjoy the act of killing an angel. Many feel regret after every kill. Angels are beautiful animals, and deserve respect as everything else does.
If you have reservations about beginning to hunt, see page 67.'
Arion turned to page 67, which was bookmarked.
'Hunting isn’t a necessity. Do not feel that you have to just because it is popular. Remember, though: angels are wild animals. They will do anything to kill you should you fail to do so first. If you happen to meet an angel, do not be deceived by its appearance. There are numerous reports of people, mostly teenagers and children, turning up dead when they were drawn in to the beautiful exterior of an angel.
Hunting angels may seem cruel at first, but it is necessary to protect those you love.'
“Bullshit!” Arion almost shouted. He covered his mouth. He didn’t usually swear, and yet, he had done so twice after finding that moron, Morin. Who was writing this crap?
Arion looked behind him. He tossed the book to Morin. “This is a load of crap,” he said. “Why would you actually believe in such blatant lies?”
“Nobody’s actually given the angels a chance to talk,” Morin said, tossing the book into a trash can. “Iris was the first angel I’ve ever seen survive a hunt. Of course, that’s because I suck at it. Forever will. I’m done.”
“You’d better be. How’s Iris doing?”
Morin recounted the story. “He made go out and buy angel blood from that one place. The shopkeeper’s an ass, you know that?”
“How can you sell angel parts and not be some sort of deviant?”
“It’s not so deviant in this society. Wherever you and Iris go after this, take me with you.”
Arion pulled a book from the shelf and flopped down on a soft leather chair. Without looking at Morin, he said, “Do you think Iris would welcome such an idea? After what you did to her?”
“What I did was minor compared to what most hunters do. I know what you mean, though. I’ll leave on my own if I have to. Meanwhile, I wanna make up to Iris somehow.”
“Can you give her her wings back?”
“No. I can’t.”
“Leave Iris to me. I know you mean well, but after she gets out of the hospital, I’ll take care of her.”
Arion knew that he was cutting deep. Morin wanted nothing more than to make amends. He considered apologizing, but decided against it. No matter how he behaved now, this kid had cut his little sister’s wings off not too long ago.
“Morin, are your parents ever home?”
“Nope. I think they’re both cross-border hunters. It might do them some good to meet you or Iris. Well, Iris anyway.”
“There’s an idea,” Arion said, grinning. “You could introduce Iris to a hunter and not tell them she was an angel till a month or so later.”
“Might work,” Morin said. “One flaw, though. There’s no human girl I’ve ever seen as pretty as Iris. Besides, don’t you have some other defining features?”
Arion nodded. “Nothing you can see on the surface, though. Iris can sing and make a troll cry. I can lift ten times my body weight. I know an angel from the south who could manipulate fire magic without draining his energy. I think he’s a dark angel now, though.”
“Iris used some pretty powerful magic when she fought against me,” Morin pointed out. “Is that another ability, or can all angels do that?”
“I’ve only ever seen three angels able to use magic without losing themselves and falling to darkness. The sense of power that comes with it consumes most of them. Me included. Last time I used magic, I was ten. I never tried it again. I felt like I wanted to test it out on people I loved. It’s scary stuff. I’m not sure how Iris can handle it.”
“She lifted the water out of the entire lake and made a lightning storm around it.”
Arion looked up from his book, eyes narrowed. “She did?”
“Yeah. What’s that mean?”
Arion set the book down. “Man. And she stayed the same, too. Even without her wings and an arrow wound.”
“So . . . that level is uncommon?”
“Naw, it’s common,” Arion said. “Most angels turn to darkness if they do something like that, though.”
“Iris seemed to have no desire for power,” Morin put in. “She could have killed me extremely easily. When I was in that lake, all she had to do was move a lightning bolt about an inch. It was more like she was trying not to kill me.”
“Angels weren’t designed with murder in mind.”
“Contrary to what the books say.”
“Get rid of every book you have about angel hunting.”
“Already done. I just had that one.”
Arion motioned over to the dusty bookcase. “And it was the only one you’d read in . . . how long?”
“Too long. I hunted so much with other people that I didn’t get the chance to do anything at home.”
Arion wanted to ask about the other angels. Morin had been hunting for a long time, apparently, but Iris had been his first solo hunt. He must have remembered some of them.
“Morin, how many hunts have you been on?”
“Seventeen, not including Iris.”
“Of those seventeen, was one of the angels a black-haired guy? Around thirty. My height.”
“Not that I can recall. All but one of our hunts was on girl angels. Dave says they’re easier to bring down.”
“Liar,” Arion scoffed. “He must enjoy killing girls or something.”
“Their hair sells for a lot, and sometimes they take the wings, break the fingers, and sell the girl as a slave.”
“Who does that?” Arion asked through clenched teeth. “Whoever they are, they deserve to be killed.”
“I agree,” Morin said. “But I sat back and watched it happen. I’ve seen girls even younger than Iris sold like that. The youngest was about ten. She killed half the hunting party, but no one wanted to kill her. They cut her hands off, though. So she couldn’t use magic.”
“Where was she sold to?”
“Some rich guy from nobility over in Hanton, I think. He didn’t treat her very well, from what I saw. I think the lowest rate of hunting we’ve ever had was after she was sold. No one went out for about three weeks.”
Arion stood up and stretched his wings out. They brushed the walls on either side of him. Pulling them back in, he walked toward the door.
“Where are you going?”
“You stay here and make sure nothing happens to Iris. I’m gonna go save that girl.”