Azazel pulled her hand from mine. She walked away from me, over to the couch where the old version of her had sat. She gazed at the blood stains. She covered her mouth with a trembling hand.
“I would never do that to you,” I said hoarsely. “I couldn’t. I could never…”
She nodded, but she didn’t look at me. “It’s all a lie. They’re trying to screw with our heads.”
I cleared my throat. “Yeah.”
She tried to laugh. “As if we’d believe this crap. As if I would ever sleep with Chance. I wouldn’t do that. I don’t care how old he was.”
“I know that.” I was still thinking about the way I’d behaved. It was haunting. I didn’t know if I could ever shake the image of myself, that ugly look on my face, shooting the woman I loved over and over.
“And you.” She turned to me now. “You wouldn’t be sleeping with teenage redheads and killing them.”
I broke our gaze. “Of course I wouldn’t,” I mumbled.
“You wouldn’t .”
I hesitated. “Azazel, the last time I had these powers, I did do that.”
She closed her eyes, shaking her head. “No, you didn’t.”
“You were there,” I said. “You bring it up enough. In Jasontown, I had a group of girls with red hair that were there for me to sleep with, and they all died.”
“You didn’t kill them.”
“It was my fault they got killed.” I ran my hands through my hair, then remembered how old me had done the same thing and dropped my hands, disgusted. “Maybe if we got our powers back again, especially all charged with this weird dark power we’ve got in this spirit world, I would do that.”
“You only had those girls because I wasn’t around,” she said. “Once I showed up, you stopped sleeping with them.”
That was true, as far as it went, I supposed. “But you didn’t have powers,” I said. “I could manipulate you. If you hadn’t been under my influence and without your memory, how would you have reacted to finding me like that? If you’d had your powers?”
She blanched. “It would have royally pissed me off.”
I nodded. “Exactly.”
Azazel swallowed. She looked back at the blood stain on the couch. “Why’d you do it anyway? Why did you need all those girls? God knows I’ve never been celibate just because you weren’t around, but I never needed…”
I didn’t answer for several minutes. I wasn’t sure how to explain, partly because I wasn’t exactly sure. When I’d been sucked into the power the way I had been back then, I didn’t always know why I did anything. “I liked being able to control people,” I said finally. “I liked making everyone love me. Making them love me…physically, it seemed like the next logical step.” I studied my shoes. “I made them do awful things, sometimes. Embarrassing things. And I made them love doing it.”
Azazel was still staring at the couch. She barked out a hard laugh. “That’s great, Jason. That’s really great.”
I was quiet for a few minutes. “I did tell you that when we got out of this, you should get away from me, didn’t I?”
“You did,” she said. “But I think we both know I’m not strong enough to leave you.”
“You left me before,” I said. “After what happened to Chance—to your brother.”
“That didn’t exactly stick,” said Azazel. “And if we both have our powers, there are only two options, aren’t there? One is that we’ll be together, enjoying ourselves as we completely destroy all the people on earth and the other is that we’ll be fighting with each other and completely destroying all the people on earth in the process.”
“Yes,” I whispered.
She turned on me. Strode across the room and took me by the shoulders. Shaking me, she said, “Don’t agree with me, Jason. Tell me it could go a different way. Tell me we’ll be okay. Tell me that we aren’t the worst thing that could possibly happen to the planet. Tell me that.”
“I can’t,” I said. “And I can’t promise I won’t hurt you again. I always seem to hurt you, and that’s what I can’t handle.”
She dropped my shoulders. “So what do we do? Fight anyway?”
“I thought that was what you said we were going to do,” I said. “I thought these tests were just cruel lies.”
She didn’t say anything.
We stood in silence for a long time, not touching. Everything was quiet. I looked to the furniture in the room for answers, but it didn’t have anything to show me except bloody stains. Our violence was all around us. If Azazel believed in us, in me, then I could try to do so as well. But if she was defeated, then I had no chance, because there was too much Darkness inside me, and I’d been trying to fight it for too long.
A small voice shattered my thoughts. “I know what to do.”
Azazel and I both looked up. There, in the center of the room, was the tiny little girl from the previous test—Aerin. She wore her hair in two pigtails, and she was holding two guns. They were too large for her little hands.
Azazel darted forward and snatched the guns away from the toddler. “What the hell are you doing here?” she snarled.
“Just trying to help, Mommy,” said Aerin.
“Don’t you call me that,” said Azazel. “Don’t you dare call me that. I know what you are, and you are not my baby.”
Aerin shrugged, looking adorable. “Could be.”
I went to Azazel and put my arm around her. “You don’t have to listen to that thing.”
Azazel buried her face in my shirt. She started to cry.
I stared over Azazel’s head at the little girl. “Please go away.”
“No. I can help. You can stay with me,” said Aerin. “If you die in this world, you stay here. And if you two kill yourselves now, you’ll wake up back in our house. And it will be as though it’s real. Every day, you’ll be with me and Davin and Carly. We can read more stories. Please, Daddy?”
“I already killed you and Davin and Carly,” I said.
“But that won’t have happened,” said Aerin. “Use the guns I brought. Shoot yourselves. And then we can all be together forever.”
Azazel heaved a shuddering sob. “You’re not real,” she said into my chest.
“It’ll be exactly the same as if I am,” said Aerin. “I’ll feel real. You’ll remember having me. You’ll remember what it was like when I was in your tummy. You’ll be able to hug me and brush my hair. And you can make me strawberry pancakes again. I miss your strawberry pancakes, Mommy.”
Azazel lifted her tearstained face from my chest. “Oh God, Jason.”
“Please?” said Aerin. “Please, please, please. I miss you.”
Azazel was still holding the guns she’d taken from Aerin. I pried one out of Azazel’s grip. “Maybe we…”
She held up the other gun. She brought it up to my head. “It would be over…”
I took a trembling breath and lifted my gun, settling it against her temple.
Behind Azazel, Aerin clapped her hands together, grinning from ear to ear. “Yeah! When we get home, can we make pancakes?”
Azazel nodded against the barrel of the gun. “Sure, sweetie,” she said. “Strawberry pancakes. As many as you want.”
I looked deep into her eyes. “Is this what you want?” I asked.
“Is it what you want?”
“I…don’t want hurt anyone anymore. I don’t want to hurt you.”
She smiled sadly. “Then you can’t shoot me, baby.” She turned in my arms, knocking the gun I was holding against her head out of my grasp. She aimed the gun at Aerin. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. But you’re not real.” And she pulled the trigger.
And one more time, everything turned white.
“Why?” I said, as the white cleared. “You wanted those children to be real. You didn’t want me to shoot them. And you said we couldn’t do anything good for the world. So…”
Azazel scrubbed her eyes, mopping at her tears with the heels of her hands. “I couldn’t shoot you, Jason. I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know what kind of messed-up thing we are together. But that’s one thing I simply can’t do. No matter who tells me to do it and how much I love that person. I can’t kill you.” She put a hand on my cheek.
I covered her hand with my own. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. But I’m glad to be alive, even if I shouldn’t be.”
She gave me a half-smile. “I’m glad to be alive too.”
I gazed around at our surroundings. The stone building—the maze where the Light tests had gone on—was behind us. In front of us was a free-standing doorway, similarly made out of stone. Instead of showing the scenery behind it, the doorway was obscured by a kind of cloudy, misty substance.
Azazel pointed at it. “What do you think is through that thing? What could be worse than what we just went through?”
“I guess we should find out,” I said. I approached the doorway, but I couldn’t see anything through it. Tentatively, I started to stick my hand through, but pulled back because the air felt strangely thick when I pushed into it. I felt it under my touch, a thin membrane. If I pushed hard enough, it would give way.
“Jason, look!” Azazel pointed through the doorway.
We could see through the doorway now. In front of us was the room we’d been in with Kieran and Eve. There were dead men littering the floor. Hallam and Marlena were in one corner, wrapped in each other’s arms. Marlena had dried blood her face. Both of them had their eyes closed as if they were sleeping. Against the far wall were both Azazel and me. We each had a wound on our foreheads—we’d obviously been shot. But I could see that our stomachs were rising and falling. We were breathing. We were alive.
“Is this it, then?” asked Azazel. “Did we beat the Light? Is that the real world on the other side of that doorway?”
“Could be,” I said. “Or it could be another test. Remember last time, we thought we’d really woken up when we hadn’t?”
“Right,” said Azazel. “Well, I guess there’s only one way to find out. We go through and wait for something weird to happen.”
“I guess so.” I reached up and pushed on the membrane again, putting a little more pressure on it so that it would break.
“Hold on a second,” said someone behind us.
Azazel and I both turned. Graham was standing there. He was wearing the same clothes he’d been in when he was shot in the Resistance hovel, not the police officer uniform we’d seen him in before.
He had his hand into his pockets. “You two shouldn’t go through there quite yet.”
“Are you the next test?” Azazel said. “Am I going to have to kill you next? Is there anyone I don’t have to kill?”
“I think I already killed him,” I said. When he was a foul-mouthed police officer. And he wasn’t actually dead, which was kind of too bad. Of course, now that I thought about it, he was actually dead. Kieran’s men had killed him. So, what was Graham now? A ghost?
“That wasn’t me,” said Graham.”I mean, it was an aspect of me. It was something the spirit world had sort of absorbed, but it wasn’t the whole me. It was just a piece of my memories, personality, and appearance that the Light used to manipulate you.”
“And you’re the whole you?” I asked.
“We have seen two different Agneses,” said Azazel.
“Right,” said Graham. “But neither of those Agneses were really the real Agnes. They were both just aspects of her, things the Darkness or the Light was using to get to you to do what they wanted you to do.”
I sighed. “I’m really sick of all of this. If you’re really the ‘real’ Graham, then who do you work for? You have another series of tests you want us to go through?”
“No tests,” said Graham.
“Why should we trust you?” I asked. “Why should I trust you? The last time I saw you, you were saying absolutely disgusting things about Azazel. You called her names.”
“I’m telling you, that wasn’t me,” said Graham. “That was the Light. The Light wants you to fight with each other. They want you unbalanced. They don’t want you to ever get your powers back.”
“Yeah,” said Azazel. “That’s what the first Agnes told us.”
“She was the Darkness,” said Graham. “The Darkness wants you to have your powers back.”
“So she told us,” I said. “Who are you?”
“I’m Graham,” said Graham. “The guy who was Azazel’s fuck buddy up until I got shot and died.”
“So you are a ghost,” I said.
Graham shrugged. “Sure. You could say that.”
“So all the people we’ve been seeing have been ghosts?” Azazel asked. “We are dead, aren’t we? This is Hell.”
“You’re not dead,” said Graham. He pointed through the doorway at our bodies. “See. You’re alive. You aren’t conscious, but you’re alive. If you push through that doorway right now, you’ll go back into your bodies. You’ll have powers, and you’ll be able to heal yourselves. You’ll wake up. And then it will be up to you guys what you do. You passed the tests. You absorbed the Darkness. You defeated the Light.”
“Okay,” said Azazel. “Maybe that’s true, and maybe it isn’t. Everything’s weird in this spirit realm or whatever. But assuming it is, why’d you stop us?”
“I wanted to show you some things. Tell you what’s really going on. You don’t have to follow either of these paths. You can make your own decisions. I’m here to explain that,” said Graham.
“You,” I said. “I don’t think I really like you very much.”
Graham sighed. “The Light’s not wrong about jealousy being your biggest problem, you know that, guys?” He put a hand on my shoulder. “There’s no reason to worry about me, Jason. I’m dead. And she picked you, anyway. Besides, I was never even in the running.” To Azazel, “Help me out.”
She chewed on her lip. “Help you out how?”
“Tell him how you never cared about me,” said Graham.
“It’s not as though I didn’t care at all,” Azazel said.
“You don’t have to spare my feelings,” said Graham. “I’m dead, remember? Besides, this isn’t about me. It’s about Jason.”
I glowered at Graham. “Forget it. You don’t have to put her on the spot like that.” I turned to Azazel. “If you trust him, it’s good enough for me.”
“I…” Azazel looked pretty uncomfortable. “You know, I said things to Graham about you because I was angry at you. And I’ve been angry at you a lot. And you’ve deserved a lot of it, but—”
I put up my hand to stop her. “Let’s not get into this again. Should we let him show us stuff or not?”
Azazel looked at her shoes. “I didn’t know Graham was going to die so soon. I feel as though I made him waste his life with me.”
“Don’t be like that,” said Graham. “You were clear about it going in. You said whatever we were doing wasn’t going to be serious. I knew that.” He glanced at me. “You’re lucky, though, you know that?”
I raised my eyebrows. “I don’t know if lucky is the word I’d use to describe my life. And after all we’ve been through, I can’t help but feel as though we’re really freaking bad for each other.”
“Well,” said Graham, “that’s real life, isn’t it? Nobody’s perfect. For whatever reason, you guys are the center of the power of the world. And if sorting out your love life is what you have to do to sort out that responsibility, then please do it. Because people like me are getting caught in the crosshairs.”
“You are going to tell us to kill ourselves, aren’t you?” said Azazel.
“I’m not,” said Graham. “But I do think if you guys charge back into reality right now, all buzzing with the power of Darkness, you’re probably going to royally screw things up. So give me some time to explain the way the world really works, why don’t you?”
I looked at Azazel. “Do you trust him?”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
“Okay then,” I said to Graham. “Explain away.”
“Come with me,” he said and started walking.
We followed and walked up a grassy hill. Graham pointed down to where there was a shallow pool of water that had gathered between two hills. Its surface glittered like glass. Graham waved his hand in a circle over it, and the water rippled. Images began to stir in it. For the rest of the time that Graham talked, Azazel and I stared into this pool of water, mesmerized by what we saw there.
“See, the reason you guys can be sure you aren’t dead,” said Graham, “is that once you die, you get absorbed back into the essence of everything, and you know everything. It’s like a big blinding flash, and you suddenly understand it all. Everything’s connected. The trees, the animals, the people. We’re all part of the world, and we all have a spark that originates here, in the world spirit, or whatever you want to call it. People call the spark different things.”
In the pool beneath us, a picture surfaced of people on their knees praying.
“Some people call it a soul,” Graham continued.
The image shifted to a woman in a turban, presiding over a séance.
“Some people call it a spirit.”
The image shifted again to a scientist in a lab, wires attached to several batteries in a closed circuit that turned on a light bulb.
“Some people,” said Graham, “call it energy. If you paid attention in your physics classes at school, you know that all matter has potential energy. Rocks, aluminum cans, people, atoms, all of those things can be turned into energy. That energy, that spark, is what binds us together. It’s where we all came from, and it’s where we all return to. This place, the world spirit, is the place where all that energy is collected. We’re all in touch with it, because it’s part of us. And it’s part of everything that’s around us. Some people think it’s where we go when we dream.”
The image in the pool shifted again. Now it showed us a group of primitive people, dressed in animal skins. They were huddled around a fire, tearing hunks of meat off the bone.
“We’ve always sensed this spark we have,” Graham continued, “and that’s why there are so many names for it. Humans have been obsessed with it forever. They’ve done their best to discover it and describe it and name it.”
A shaman materialized next to the fire. He wore a helmet made of bones and a long robe of animal furs. He raised his hands and threw back his head.
“The earliest humans named the spark and divided it. They made gods, they assigned them powers. But the truth is, the spark, the spirit, always resided inside the humans themselves. And whatever they believed, took shape here inside the Spiritus Mundi. And if it took shape here, inside the spirit realm, since the spirit realm is inextricably tied to the real world, it took shape there as well. Whatever they believed became real,” said Graham.
Azazel spoke up. “That was what the Order the Fly believed. They said that my power and Jason’s power grew to the point that it did, because so many people over the ages believed in us.”
“It’s true,” said Graham. “People have far more power than they could possibly imagine. They create the universe, but they never realize it.” He waved his hand over the pool, and the image shifted again. Now we saw men rushing through the jungle, clubs and sticks in their hands, and other men, similarly armed, running for them. The groups of men collided, bashing at each other. We watched men fall, their faces bloody. We watched the sky grow dark over the dead bodies. We watched other people come, gather those dead men into their arms, their faces in anguish.
“Pain,” said Graham, “is a powerful emotion. No one likes feeling it. And so from the very beginning, people began trying to minimize it. They realized there were things that people did to each other that caused pain, and they thought if people could stop doing those things, then they would all be happier. It was the birth of evil. Once people knew they were doing bad things, they had to try to stop doing them. It helped, of course. It made it easier for people to live together. It made people hurt each other less. But it also meant that the Darkness, the evil, the pain that the people were giving up, started to collect in the Spiritus Mundi.”
A great cloud of Darkness appeared in the pool of water. It swirled like a tornado, picking up speed. Graham pointed at it. “The Darkness is the source of the power you have acquired here in your tests. It’s the most ancient of powers. It has gathered here for eons, growing stronger and stronger. It has powered so much evil throughout the centuries.”
Flashes appeared in the pool. Fields of bodies. Sobbing children. Screaming women. And blood. So much blood. Despite myself, I felt excitement surge within me at the sight of the suffering, as if some part of me reveled in it. Was it the Darkness itself? The powers it had imbued in me? Or was it something native to me?
“It’s easy to blame the Darkness,” said Graham, “but the truth is, it wasn’t created from a vacuum. It was created by people. People wanted to give up the Darkness. They defined what made Darkness, and so they gave it form. They made it stronger. And anything that strong has to be fought.”
In the pool, an image of a lamb on an altar swam up. People were dancing around it while priests lit the dead animal on fire.
“Once people had tried to give up the Darkness of their own free will, they passed this information on to their children. And their children passed it on. But at some point, it lost its full message. It became a set of rules and beliefs. It was rote memorization, taught to people because it was important—not explained to people in a rational sense. People were taught to believe it blindly. People didn’t have time to spend thinking it through, so they let other people puzzle it out. Philosophers. Shamans. And over time, as things became more and more complicated, priests and rabbis. Soon, there wasn’t just fighting the evil, there was religion and government. The religion and government taught the people what to do to keep the Darkness at bay. And so, the people gave up even more of their own sparks. They created organizations to have power over them, to fight the Darkness. And they were sure that these forces could only be the opposite: the Light.”
The pool churned in images. Scores of people carried stones to build a temple. Rows of men and women bowed down with their foreheads against the ground. Women donned nuns’ habits. Men stood on pulpits in three-piece suits, gesticulating wildly.
“It wasn’t that the intentions of the Light weren’t good,” said Graham. “But as more and more people gave up their sparks to swirl into the Light’s growing force, the Light became a polar opposite force in the world. A force with just as much power as the Darkness. The combination of such things proved to be a recipe for disaster. Good intentions and too much power meant that the emissaries of the Light could excuse any of their actions as long as they were in the service of fighting Darkness. And so the war in the world spirit began. Light against Dark. It raged across centuries, culminating ultimately in the two of you.”
I gazed down into the pool, which was churning turbulent waters. There weren’t any images currently. “Azazel and I? How?”
Graham moved his hand over the water and it went placid. An image shone forth of a group of men in white robes, kneeling before a man with an outstretched sword and kissing it. “The Light was charged with organization and power. Branches of it grew to stave off the Darkness. In particular, secret societies moved to and fro, giving up their power to the Light. They envisioned a champion to banish Darkness forever. To fight and conquer. And what better name for an emissary of Light than the Rising Sun?”
The image changed again. I saw men in a medieval church, each bearing the insignia of the Sons of the Rising Sun. They poured over books. They planted gardens. They ate together, chattering boisterously. They were filled with the excitement of their mission: me.
“But if I’m from the Light,” I said, “why did the Light try to get me to kill myself? Why do they want me dead?”
“Oh, convolutions have ensued beyond all imagination,” said Graham. “We’ll get to that. But first, realize that the Darkness was not idle during this time either.” He waved his hand over the water and the picture of the swirling, churning Darkness reappeared. “For a long time, the power of the Darkness lay in its chaos. It was powerful because it kept humans without knowledge or direction. It kept them sublimated in their most primitive desires, forced them to give in to their fears, lusts, and angers. But as time wore on, the Darkness began to acquire symbols of itself—rallying cries for those who celebrated the chaos and confusion of freedom—the opposite of order and the Light.” The image changed, and a man appeared in the pool. He was beautiful—and I don’t usually find men beautiful—but this man had an ethereal sort of attraction about him. He had eyes that beckoned, and an expression that promised wickedness and pleasure. He was irresistible. “They told stories about him, and so he existed,” said Graham. “They called him different names. But you know him chiefly as Satan.”
“Azazel,” Azazel breathed. She lay down on the ground and reached for the image in the pool.
Graham quickly moved his hands over the water. The image faded.
Azazel looked up at him. “They said they imbued me with his spirit. Did they?”
“They believed they did,” said Graham. “And so they did. Elements of the Darkness seeped into you.”
“No,” I said. “No, I made her Dark. If I’d left her alone, she’d never have—”
“Stop saying things like that, Jason,” Azazel interrupted. “It’s never been true. I had this within me.”
Graham laughed. “The truth is that concentrated Darkness and concentrated Light are much the same. They are both destructive, and they are both primarily concerned with obliterating the other side. They are human energies, you see. And it is what humans do. They obsess. They lose their grand ideas in the pursuit of trivialities. Jason may have been born of Light and Azazel of Darkness, but by the time you absorbed your powers, it hardly made any difference. You were absorbed into a battle that predated you, that was rooted in the origins of the world. You shouldn’t try to categorize yourselves as either good or evil. Duality is so limiting anyway.”
“So our powers came from these two fighting forces?” Azazel asked.
“Yes. You were incarnations of the Light and the Dark. That’s why you have always been placed in situations where you are against each other.”
“But we’ve always chosen to be together,” I said. “I mean, it hasn’t always been our first instinct. But in the end, we choose each other.”
“Yeah,” said Azazel. “If we’re destined to fight, why are we in love?”
Graham didn’t answer for a moment. “I don’t think that’s my story to tell. The answer is inside you.”
“You mean because we have free will?” I asked.
“Maybe it will help if I show you how interconnected the Light and the Darkness really have become. The two forces are opposite, but they also draw each other close as well, like north and south poles of a magnet. Neither of you has ever been pure Light or pure Dark. You’ve been mixtures of both since you were conceived. I’ll show you.”
The pool showed an image of my father, wearing a suit and standing in front of a classroom. In the front row was my mother, eagerly taking in his every word, adoration all over her face.
“It all started with Edgar Weem. But then you two know this story, don’t you?”
I nodded. “He told himself he made me to do good, but really he was driven by a lust for power, a desire for revenge, and by pride.”
“Exactly,” said Graham. “He was never completely guided by Light. Darkness slipped into you from the very beginning. You were meant to be pure order. You were meant to be the symbol that guided people into the beacon of utter civilization. But Edgar Weem didn’t get it quite right. He summoned great power, but it was a hodgepodge of Light and Dark. And others found their ways in as well.”
The image shifted to Arabella Hoyt, Azazel’s grandmother, spitting curses over Michaela Weem’s belly.
“She only wanted revenge,” said Graham. “Her curse was part of you.”
“And my mother,” I said. “Michaela served Darkness. She worshipped chaos.”
“Oh, we’ll get to Michaela Weem eventually,” said Graham. “She was quite confused. It was partly Arabella Hoyt’s fault, but there was more to it than that.” He moved his hand over the pool of water. The interior of the sorority house filled the surface of the water. I was pumping bullets into a dead girl’s body, maniacally grinning. I had to turn away from the image. I’d never known I looked like that.
Azazel looked away as well.
“They put the Darkness into you in other ways,” said Graham. “They forced you to be violent. They wanted your unquestioning obedience. They pushed you to see how far you would go. And when they were finished with you, you hardly wanted to follow the Light anymore. They had hurt you, twisted you.” Graham sat down on the ground. His face grew sad. “That’s what the Light always does. They try to force goodness on people, but it only leads to evil. That’s what people do, because the Light is part of us. It’s what we created. It’s us. We try so hard to do things right, but we always…” He was quiet for a second. “Maybe if we didn’t give up so much of ourselves to other things. Maybe if we weren’t always following one idea or another—making that idea stronger with our own ideas. Maybe if we kept our own sparks.”
Graham passed a hand over the water. The image changed. Now it showed Azazel’s mother. She was very young, and her eyes shone bright with hope. Azazel’s father slid in behind her, embracing her. “Your parents,” Graham said. “They were very much in love. But their desire for children blinded them.”
The image swirled again. A sign reading, “Welcome to Bramford,” appeared. “There was a group of Satanists in Bramford. They ostensibly served the Darkness, because they embraced chaos and refused to follow any kind of rule or order. But truthfully, they contributed very little to the growing Dark in the world spirit. They were simply too mundane and peaceful, living out their lives with very little conflict. When your parents arrived in Bramford, they were originally attracted to the Satanists, because their beliefs centered so much on individual freedom, which your parents embraced. But your mother wanted a baby. They tried everything the Satanists told them to do.” The image shifted, and an elderly woman was handing Azazel’s mother a necklace with a pentagram pendant.
“The necklace my mother got from Mrs. Cantle,” said Azazel. “She gave it to me before the prom.”
“But the Satanists,” continued Graham, “didn’t offer anything more than charms and hopes. They weren’t driven. Not the way Michaela Weem was anyway.” The pool showed my young mother opening the door to Azazel’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Jones.
Azazel reached down towards the pool again. “They’re so young,” she murmured. “I miss them. I miss the sounds of their voices.”
Graham raised his eyebrows. “Even after what they did to you?”
Azazel shrugged. “They weren’t always awful. They were my parents. At one point, I loved them so much.”
Graham waved his hand over the pool, and suddenly, there was sound.
Michaela closed the door after the couple, who fidgeted with their jackets, looking uncomfortable. “It’s good to finally meet you,” she said.
“It’s good to meet you,” said Mrs. Jones. “We found your articles in the pamphlet so unsettling. We came to help.”
Michaela smiled. “You came because you could not conceive on your own. Isn’t that right?”
Azazel’s parents exchanged an uncomfortable look.
“Well,” said Mr. Jones, “that’s certainly a factor. But we are concerned with this threat from an agent of order, and our coven is too. Anything we can do to help.”
Michaela’s smile widened, but it wasn’t exactly friendly. “You realize this child will be called into the service of Azazel before he is grown, don’t you? You realize that if you give birth to this baby, he will not be yours forever. He will only be on loan from the gods of chaos.”
“I guess they didn’t realize I was going to be a girl,” said Azazel.
“I’m glad you were,” I said.
Azazel’s parents both bobbed their heads. “We understand,” said Mrs. Jones. “We are willing to do whatever we can. We will sacrifice what we must to preserve individuality and chaos.”
“Well, then,” said Michaela, “you must do exactly as I say.”
The image shifted to Michaela mixing strange ingredients together and giving it to Mrs. Jones to drink. Graham spoke. “Michaela set herself up as a leader. She ordered everyone around, and they listened. Though she did it to further the Darkness, she used the trappings of organization and the Light to accomplish it. And thus, Azazel, you were also both Dark and Light.”
“But how did she do it?” asked Azazel. “My parents couldn’t have babies before they went to her. What did she do?”
“She petitioned the Darkness,” said Graham. “It’s possible if you can access the power to manipulate matter in all kinds of ways. After all, the power here is made of sparks from individuals, remember? It’s made up of us. Turning it back into matter is possible. But it takes a tremendous amount of power.”
“So I am Dark,” said Azazel.
“Didn’t I just explain that you were both Dark and Light?” said Graham.
“We were both created out of both,” I said.
“Exactly,” said Graham, “and so you had the potential to be swayed either way. If you’d followed the plans of the people who brought you into being, you’d have towed the party line, so to speak. But instead you two fell in love.” He waved his hand over the pool and the two of us appeared outside the homecoming dance in Bramford. We were kissing. But I noted the way our bodies fit together. I noted that I was pushing Azazel into the wall, that I was the aggressor. And I remembered the way that night had gone. I’d initiated the entire incident. It had been me who had come to her and said that I couldn’t watch her with Toby. Maybe if I’d only backed off… But we’d tried that scenario earlier in this weird spirit world dream sequence. Maybe I was the aggressor. Maybe I had brought Darkness into Azazel’s life. But if Graham was right, Darkness was already there.
The picture in the pool changed, and now Azazel and I were fleeing the scene in Bramford in a stolen car. Azazel shot looks over her shoulder. I glared at the road, grim. “The two of you may have straddled the lines of Light and Dark for a while, but nearly as soon as you were together, you made your choice,” said Graham. “You rebelled against everything you knew. You fought every aspect of order you could manage. You were Darkness.”
“We’re Dark,” Azazel said. “Somehow, I’ve always known, but I’ve never wanted to believe it.”
I sat down heavily next to her on the grass, reaching for her hand. “I always wanted it to be me who was the Dark one. I wanted you to be free of it.”
“Dark doesn’t mean evil, you know,” said Graham. “That’s not what I’m trying to say here. You embodied the spirit of the Darkness here in the Spiritus Mundi. I don’t mean to say that you’re bad people. Remember it’s all coming from humanity. They’re the ones making these powers even exist.”
“But the Light was right,” said Azazel, “we are destructive. We hurt things. We kill people. We’re selfish.”
“And so is the Light,” said Graham. “They favor Kieran and Eve because they are the epitome of Order, effectively stealing everything from individual humans and making them dance like puppets on a string.”
“Like I did in Jasontown,” I said.
“Yes,” said Graham. “But the Light is just as destructive and selfish. It isn’t the answer, Azazel, and don’t let it fool you into thinking it is. Let me show you what the Light has done to get you into this position, shall I?” Graham waved his hands over the pool, and it cleared. “The two of you destroyed a very powerful institution of order, the Sons of the Rising Sun. You were a threat to the Light, and it knew it. I’ve already mentioned that your powers were infiltrated almost entirely by Darkness, and they were growing, weren’t they, with every establishment you destroyed, with every mass of people you killed?”
I nodded. “Yeah, we did have more powers by the time we were in Italy, but they weren’t strong, and we couldn’t figure them out. Azazel had more than me, then.”
“Because Azazel’s powers were created specifically to serve Darkness,” said Graham. “And yours were created to serve the Light. Azazel’s powers were strong. Yours were weak.”
“Right,” I said. “I didn’t really start to feel any kind of power until after Azazel and I broke up. After the solar flare, it intensified.”
Graham nodded. “Exactly.”
“Why should that matter?” said Azazel.
Graham pointed to the pool. There was an image there of a guy in a t-shirt and jeans. His hair was cut short against his head. I didn’t think I recognized him, but there was something familiar about him. He was sitting across from a desk in an office. There was a house plant in one corner. A file cabinet in the other.
“Mitch?” said Azazel, clearly recognizing him.
“Mitch?” I repeated, confused.
“The guy you killed when you shot Chance,” said Azazel. “You thought I was cheating on you with him.”
Oh, yeah. I scrutinized the guy. He looked so young now, like a little boy. Why had I worried? “He hardly looks like competition anymore. Even though he did send me those notes you wrote to him.”
“What notes?” said Azazel.
“Watch,” said Graham.
Mitch slouched in the chair. “Wait, you’re paying me not to actually have sex with this girl?”
A disembodied voice replied, “That’s right. We want it to appear as if there is an affair going on, but we don’t want there actually to be an affair.”
“That’s not what I do, usually,” said Mitch. “Usually, old guys who want a divorce hire me to seduce their wives so they can get them for infidelity. That’s what I’m good at.”
“We’re aware of your usual practices,” said the voice. “If you’d like to decline the offer, we’ll try someone else.”
“That’s okay,” said Mitch. “I’ll do it. But it’s going to be complicated. The chick needs to think we’re just friends, but her man needs to think I’m doing her? How the hell…?”
“Can you do it?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“The Order of the Fly thanks you,” said the voice.
“What the hell?” I said.
“He was working for the OF, trying to break us up?” said Azazel. “But why?”
“You’d landed a great blow against the Light, and they used the Order of the Fly—an organization with the word order in the title—to fight back. They thought that if they separated the two of you, they could get Jason’s power to return to the side it ‘belonged’ on, to where it had originated,” said Graham.
“So they made Jason jealous?” said Azazel. She put a hand on my cheek. “And to think, all this time, it wasn’t even your fault. What were you saying about notes?”
“Yeah, I got these letters you’d written to him,” I said, remembering. “They seemed pretty intimate at the time, but after you told me there was nothing going on between the two of you, I reread them. I told myself I must have been imagining it. But I guess he was actually trying to make me feel as though I was losing my mind.”
“Poor Jason!” said Azazel. “No wonder you went nuts.”
Gently, I moved her hand from my face. “Just because I was being manipulated doesn’t make me guilt free. I did kill him. No matter what I thought he was doing, he didn’t deserve that.”
“You were manipulated, however,” said Graham. “And knowing your weakness the way they did, I’d say they played the two of you like violins.”
“So, they managed to make me break up with Jason,” said Azazel, “and hate him. I didn’t see you after that for years, I was so angry.”
“I know,” I said, thinking back on that period of time right after I’d lost her the first time. I’d been so confused. So hurt. So adrift.
“And then,” said Graham, “just as the forces of Light had hoped, Jason’s powers began to grow stronger.” He moved his hand over the pool, and it showed a picture of me fighting a man twice my size in the street. It switched to me fighting another man, and then another. It panned out to show the crowd watching me. They were cheering. And the pool showed more fights, the crowds seemed to double in size.
“I could make them follow me,” I remembered. “I’d never felt anything like it before, not exactly. Sure, the Sons had followed me around like lapdogs, and we’d even had that weird experience at the Sol Solis School. But these people were strangers, and they loved me for no reason. They did what I asked. I couldn’t help but enjoy it.”
“Which is what they wanted you to do,” said Graham. “They wanted your powers to grow. They wanted all the power to grow. They wanted more power than they could possibly imagine. They had hatched a plan.” The pool showed a gathering of members of the Order of the Fly. They were discussing something passionately. “The Light, you remember, wants to impose order and structure on everyone. And they began to realize that the only way they would easily get the whole world under the thumb of one man—of Jason, the emissary of the Light—would be to first plunge the world into Darkness.
“It was clever of them, I suppose,” chuckled Graham. “Solar flare. Rising Sun. The Light.”
“Wait,” said Azazel. “The Light caused the solar flare?”
“Jason caused the solar flare,” said Graham.
“No, I didn’t,” I said.
Graham waved his hand over the pool. A huge, ancient clay vase appeared. There was something bright inside it, its brilliance streaming out above the brim and through the cracks that held the vase together. “The vessel contained the sun,” he said. The clay vase began to wobble until it tipped over and the brilliant thing inside of it spilled out. “And the sun got out. It was so bright…”
“It burned everything,” said Azazel. “Nancy had a vision like that. Back in Columbus. She told me about it.”
“When you and Azazel broke up,” said Graham, “you were so hurt. It took a while to build up, but Jason, you sort of…exploded.”
“Wait,” I said. “I caused the solar flare? I caused the apocalypse? All of this is my fault?”
“Your power may have caused it,” said Graham, “but the fault lies with the Light. They are the ones who caused the misery. And they got what they wanted. With the world falling apart, people were desperately searching for someone to follow.” Graham plucked a spear of grass from the ground. He surveyed it. “People do that, you know. They’re sheep. They relinquish their individual power to other people, because they’re lazy and afraid. They seek out strength and surrender all their sparks to it. That was what they did to you, Jason, in Jasontown.”
I shook my head. “I stole their freedom from them. They didn’t give it up.”
“The Light only exists because they’ve given it up,” said Graham. “All people, all the time, surrender themselves. And the Light becomes more powerful and more domineering.”
No. I was solely responsible for my actions. Wasn’t I?
“Each person needs to take individual responsibility for the effect he or she has on the whole world,” said Graham quietly. “People are part of a collective, and that collective is not pure and innocent.”
“So what happened?” said Azazel. “Why did Jason move back to the Dark?”
“Well,” said Graham, “the Light hadn’t counted on how deep the connection the two of you shared was. So even though you were apart, you were still interacting and fighting. Constantly. You two couldn’t stop thinking about each other. The Light tried all kinds of things, including taking Azazel’s powers. That might have worked if the Dark hadn’t fought back with Cameron. Overall, the Light is pleased with the way Kieran and Eve rule things, because they are structured and ordered, and they erase the individual—the source of all Darkness.” Graham paused. “So as you can see, there is nothing particularly pure and perfect about the Light either. The Light is just as responsible as the Dark for all that’s gone wrong. The two of you are responsible for your actions as individuals, but you are also victims of powers larger than you.”
“I do see,” I said. “But right now, we’ve been imbued with the powers of the Dark, right? And if we bust back through that doorway back there, we’ll use the Darkness to fight Kieran and Eve. So, what will happen?”
Graham let out a breath. “That will be up to the two of you.”
“Will it?” said Azazel. “Or will we be influenced by the Dark? Will we cause massive destruction?”
“The last test that we went through was pretty intense,” I said. “I don’t want to end up there, ever. Is there a chance that the Dark will force us towards that, or was the Light lying?”
“I don’t know the answer to that,” said Graham. “I can’t predict the future, and unlike representatives from either the Dark or the Light, I won’t pretend that I know what to do any better than the two of you do.”
“So why’d you show us this, then?” I asked. “If you don’t have any suggestions, what’s the point of us knowing all about where we came from?”
“For you to be informed,” said Graham. “For you to know the truth.”
“But it’s hopeless,” said Azazel. “Without using the powers of the Dark, we’ll die. Kieran and Eve and the Light win. But if we use the powers of the Dark, we’ll kill everyone. There’s no way to win. There’s no way to do the right thing. What do we do?”
This book is being posted on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning 1/17/2012. To access other chapters, check out the Onset Posts Archive, here.