“You know, I was surprised to hear you wanted to come here on your break. I figured you’d want to stay or at least go somewhere more exciting.”
Gail’s mother set a mug of coffee in front of her as Gail sat at the kitchen table. Gail sighed and took the mug, inhaling the steam coming from the coffee. “I wasn’t planning to originally, but there’s something that I need to do.”
Her mother tilted her head and peered at Gail a little suspiciously. “And what would that be?”
“I’m not entirely sure myself,” Gail muttered, running a hand over her face. “I just… I can’t really explain it. I guess you could call it something like going on a spiritual journey.”
Her mother stared at her, raising an eyebrow. “Really? When exactly did you start caring about spirituality? I’ve never heard you talk about anything like that before.”
“A lot has happened over this past year,” Gail muttered, taking a sip of her coffee. “Like I said, I don’t totally understand it myself, it’s just something I feel like I need to do.”
“Alright, whatever you say. I’m not going to stop you. You’re an adult after all, you can do what you want.” Her mother walked over to her and wrapped her arms around Gail. “I know things have been difficult for you and I haven’t been making them any easier, have I?”
Gail sighed a little and murmured, “Just at the funeral and Christmas, really. It’s not like you were calling and bothering me all the time like Dad was.”
Her mother snorted and turned away. “Your father always was persistent with whatever he wanted. Still, if I caused you any grief I want to apologize for that.”
Gail glanced up and reached out to take her mother’s hand. “Yeah well, I haven’t exactly been understanding either. I was acting maybe a little selfish, like Axel’s death only affected me and no one else. That was wrong and I’m sorry, and Dad was right. I should’ve been there for you a little more.”
“There’s no reason for you to be sorry, Gail,” her mother said with a sad smile. “It’s your last year of school, it’s not like you could’ve been here if you wanted to. You were always closer to your brother than either of us were anyway.” She leaned down and gave Gail a kiss on the head. “It’s alright. You don’t have to apologize. This has been hard on all of us.”
Gail sighed and took another sip of coffee, nodding her head. “The year is almost over,” she murmured. “It will be in a couple months, anyway. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that.”
“You have plenty of time to decide,” her mother said. “And if you ever need to, you’re always welcome back here until you have things settled for yourself.”
“I know. Thanks, Mom.”
Once Gail had some time to herself, Cynder appeared to her with an entirely irritated look on his face. “You know we’ve wasted enough time on this already, we should go.”
“Sorry I couldn’t just drop everything and leave the moment you told me,” Gail muttered. “Spring break was the best time for me to come here. It’s fine.” She rubbed a hand over her face and stared at him. “What do you need me to do, exactly?”
“Come with me back into the woods,” Cynder said. “We need to find Cecil and I need you to convince him to face this.”
“That’s it? You just want me to talk to him?”
“He listens to you,” Cynder said. “A lot more than he’ll listen to me it seems.”
“I doubt that, but…” Gail sighed and nodded her head. “I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
“Then we shouldn’t waste any more time,” Cynder said. “Let’s go and find him.”
Gail headed out of the house and back across the property, climbing up the hill where the large pond was. She stared at the pond for a moment before circling around it to get to the entrance to the woods on the other side. The moment she was in the woods, Cynder was walking along beside her, a rather grim look on his face.
“He’s here somewhere,” he said in a low voice. “I can sense him, and the demon as well. We need to find them quickly before it’s too late.”
“Do you know where they are?” Gail asked.
Cynder glanced around for a moment, his eyes sharp, then he started walking quickly down the path. “This way, come quickly.”
Gail had to run to keep up with him as they went deeper into the woods. Though she hadn’t been through the woods for years, everything still looked familiar to her. When they were further in, they turned down a path that left the wooded area and opened up into a great open field. A large weeping willow tree stood a little further from them up a slope.
Gail and Cynder approached the tree and once they got closer Gail could see a figure curled up at the base of the tree. She gasped when she recognized him and rushed over.
“Cecil, are you okay? What’s wrong, what happened?” She knelt down beside him and carefully laid a hand on his shoulder. Cecil jerked his head up at her touch and stared at her with wide, tear-filled eyes.
“Abbey… what are you doing here?” he asked in a choked voice.
“I brought her,” Cynder said, stopping just a few feet away. Cecil stared at his brother for a second or two before turning his attention back to Gail.
“Why? You shouldn’t be here, it isn’t safe.”
“Cynder brought me because he said you were in trouble and I needed to help you. He neglected to tell me exactly what was going on, though,” Gail said with a little huff. Cynder ignored her comment.
“You can’t help me,” Cecil whispered, shaking his head. “No one can help me, this is something I have to deal with.”
“But you aren’t dealing with it, that’s the problem!” Cynder growled. “Cecil, I told you what you needed to do but you keep refusing to do it, and now that demon is preying on you yet again.”
Cecil pressed his face into his hands and let out a shaky breath. “Gail, please tell him to go away, he isn’t helping.”
Gail frowned at him and leaned a little closer, whispering near his ear, “Will you tell me what’s going on if he leaves?”
“I… yes, I will. I’ll tell you everything, I just… I can’t with him around.”
“Fine.” Gail glanced over her shoulder at Cynder and Cynder let out a deep sigh. With a nod of his head he turned away and disappeared in the blink of an eye. Once he was gone Gail sat down on the ground next to Cecil and stared at him. “What’s wrong?”
Cecil rubbed at his eyes slowly and let out another shaky breath. “Everything. Everything is wrong. I’m a failure as a guardian. Even my wings have turned gray. I think I’m starting to fall…”
Gail’s eyes grew wide and for a moment she wasn’t sure what to say, then she gently put an arm around his shoulders. “What makes you think you’re a failure? I mean yeah, you ran away for a significant amount of time, but you seem like a pretty good guardian to me.”
“I wasn’t even talking about while I’ve been with you,” Cecil murmured, sniffling a little. “I meant before I ever met you. I did something horrible, something I can’t forgive myself for. I guess I became your guardian for… penance. But I screwed that up too. That demon hurt you back when you were a child, and it hurt you again when I was running away from my brother. I’m so stupid.”
“Cecil.” Gail wrapped her other arm around him and hugged him tightly. He was shaking hard and trying to hold back sobs unsuccessfully. Cecil curled his arms around her as he cried and Gail just held him for awhile in silence.
When his sobs began to subside Gail let out a soft breath and murmured, “Have I ever told you that you remind me of my brother?”
Cecil blinked a few times and looked down at her, wiping at his eyes with the back of his hand. “I don’t know, maybe.”
“You remind me of him a whole lot,” she said with a little smile, resting her head against his shoulder. “You’re so kind and caring and you just want to help and make me happy. But you’ve always seemed so sad and I couldn’t figure out why.” She curled her fingers into his shirt, her voice quivering a little. “I don’t want to lose you the way I lost him.”
Cecil let out a shaky breath and hugged his arms tighter around Gail, pressing her close. “I… I don’t want you to, either. I want to stay with you, Gail. I want to be here for you and… and for you to be here for me.”
Gail slowly lifted up her head and gazed into his eyes. “Then tell me what’s wrong, Cecil. What did you do that you can’t forgive yourself for?”
The corner of Cecil’s mouth twitched a little, fear and doubt flashing in his eyes. He slowly opened his mouth to speak but a different voice interrupted him. “He made a bet with a demon and lost, and his charge died because of it.”
Gail jerked her head up and saw someone standing a couple feet away from her. She was startled upon seeing he looked exactly like Cecil, but then she saw his red eyes. It was the demon she had met back on Halloween night.
The demon grinned and started walking forward. “Oh, doesn’t this place bring back memories? You know, you were right here the time we met, Abbey,” he said, licking his lips slowly. “You were so young and innocent back then, but look at you now. All grown up.”
Cecil stood and pulled Gail to her feet, curling a protective arm around her and glaring fiercely at the demon. “You stay away from her,” he growled low in his throat.
The demon chuckled a little and murmured, “Why don’t you?”
“What do you want with Cecil?” Gail said, trying to be brave in the face of that horrifying creature.
“What makes you think I want anything with him?” the demon said, tilting his head to the side. “I’m here to give you a friendly warning, Abbey. You should stay away from him because soon enough he is going to turn into me.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Gail hissed.
“Why do you think I look like him?” the demon responded, taking a small step closer to them. “I’m a look into his future. He is starting to fall and once he does, this is what he will be.”
“That’s not true,” Gail growled, curling her fingers around Cecil’s wrist. “I don’t believe a word of it.”
“Not believing it doesn’t make it untrue,” the demon said with a shrug. “You didn’t believe in angels before, right? But clearly they do exist.”
“Shut up!” Gail barked. “Get out of here and don’t come back!”
The demon glared at her and slowly began advancing on them, and Cecil took a step away, pressing Gail closer. “You really think a powerless little human like you can order me around? I don’t think so. I think I’m going to finish what I started all those years ago. Mm, might be a bit more difficult now that you’re not a fragile little child anymore, but I’m sure I can manage anyway.”
“I’m not going to let you touch her,” Cecil growled again.
“Oh, but why not? Wouldn’t it just be easier that way? You’re burning up ever so slowly, Cecil. Why not just get it all done and over with in one fell swoop? It will be far less painful that way.”
“You will not hurt her!” Cecil shot back. “I will protect her, with my life if I have to!”
“Well, if you want to play the hard way that’s fine with me,” the demon said. “More fun that way, too.”
He rushed forward, bent over and looking like some horrifying beast. Just before he reached Cecil and Gail, Cynder appeared in front of them and knocked the demon away with a powerful strike to the abdomen. The demon was thrown back some distance from them, but it was only a momentary distraction.
Cynder turned to them and growled, “Go, get out of here, I’ll keep it from you. Cecil, tell her what happened! Gail, make him tell you and make him see the truth. Go, now!” He shoved the both of them back behind him, and before Gail knew what was happening Cecil wrapped his arms around her and a second later they were deep in the woods.
“Cecil, what is going on?” Gail gasped. “What did Cynder mean? What does he want you to tell me?”
Cecil stepped away from her and took a deep breath, pressing his hands to his face. “What I did that I can’t forgive myself for.”
“That demon said you made a bet and lost,” Gail said, staring at him with wide eyes. “Was that true?”
“No, yes…” He let out an agitated breath and shook his head. “It wasn’t a demon, it was Cynder, back when he was Fallen. Something happened. We came face to face with each other when I was supposed to kill him, but I couldn’t. He’s my brother.”
Gail let out a shaky breath as she gazed at him then nodded her head. “Go on.”
Cecil shook his head and ran a hand over his face and through his hair. “We made a bet, and actually both of us lost in the end I guess, seeing as how he turned out. But I…” Cecil let out a shaky breath and pressed his face into his hands again.
Gail stepped in front of him and gripped his shoulders. “Cecil, what happened? Please tell me.”
“The girl I was guarding died,” Cecil whispered. “She killed herself. I could have stopped her, but I didn’t. It’s all my fault.”
Gail took a step back and inhaled, her eyes wide. “Cecil…”
“I failed her,” he said in a choked voice. “I can never forgive myself for it, and I can’t… I can’t do this anymore. Everything’s falling apart, and soon I’ll become Fallen.”
“That’s not true,” Gail said. “You’re not going to fall. Didn’t you say fallen angels were no better than demons? You’re nothing like that. Maybe you did make a mistake, but it’s not like you wanted her to die, right? It’s not like you killed her yourself.”
“I still let her die, though. I was supposed to protect her, supposed to keep her safe. I didn’t see what was going on right in front of my face until it was too late. I’m a fool.”
Gail let out a shaky breath and grabbed his hand, clasping it tight in both of hers. “You know what? I had to deal with the exact same thing. I felt like Axel’s death could have been prevented if I had just done something, if I had only seen it coming, but he still died. I felt horrible about it, and I still do, but it’s not my fault. It’s no one’s fault. You can’t keep blaming yourself for it.”
Cecil looked up at her slowly, letting out a trembling breath. “You don’t understand… I was right there when it happened.”
“Cecil, listen to me.” She gripped his shoulders and pulled him closer, making him look her in the eye. “That demon is preying on your insecurities, on your guilt. If you keep blaming yourself, that’s just going to make things worse. If you believe you’re going to fall, maybe you actually will.”
A shudder went through him as he gazed at her and he curled his hands around her wrists. “I don’t know what to do,” he whispered. “How am I supposed to forgive myself for what happened?”
Gail stared at him for a long moment then whispered, “If even half of the stuff I’ve heard about God is true, then shouldn’t He forgive you? Shouldn’t He understand? That’s what believing in Him is all about anyway, right? He’s supposed to forgive us of every bad thing we ever did. Shouldn’t that be the same for you, too?”
Cecil let out a choked breath, gripping her wrists a little tighter. His eyes grew misty again and he started shaking his head and sniffling. “I’m… I’m so stupid.”
“No you’re not,” Gail said, curling her arms around him. “Or maybe you are, but then so am I.”
A strange sound echoed behind them and they turned to see Cynder running toward them, a grimace on his face. “Cecil, I need your help, now! Gail, get somewhere safe. That demon is coming right for us!”
Gail hesitated and looked at Cecil. Cecil wiped his face on the back of his arm and nodded his head. “Okay. I think I’m ready to do this now. Gail, go back home. We’ll handle this.”
“If you’re sure about this.” She squeezed his shoulder one last time, gazing at him for a long moment before whispering, “Promise you’ll come back, okay?”
“I promise,” he said with a nod. He pushed her back in the direction of the house and Gail turned and began running through the woods as fast as she could. She glanced over her shoulder once and saw the two brothers embracing. With a little smile she turned and continued running through the woods.
When at last she made it past all the trees, she stopped to take a breath and gaze out toward the house. Gail swallowed and rubbed a hand across her forehead, sighing deeply. This would be over soon and she could rest. All of them could, and perhaps Cecil could finally be at peace with himself.
She started making her way back around the pond to go home, but something slammed into her from behind and knocked her to the ground. Gail gasped and suddenly she was face to face with the demon, a large claw pressed against her throat and a dark expression in his eyes. “Looks like they weren’t paying enough attention to see what was happening to their precious little charge. Just like the last two times, mm?”
Gail struggled to pull away from him and started to shout but he quickly silenced her with a hand to her mouth. “Ah-ah, you’re not calling for them. Like I said, I’m going to finish what I started all those years ago.” He hauled her off the ground and lifted her off her feet. Gail kicked and squirmed, trying desperately to get away from him as he drug her closer to the edge of the pond.
“Take a deep breath,” he said with a grin. He tossed her forward and Gail screamed. Memories of her dreams flashed through her mind of her sinking deeper and deeper into dark water with no hope of escaping. She expected to feel the water around her, but she never even hit the surface.
Gail opened her eyes to find Cynder setting her down several feet away from the pond. He then turned to the demon with a glare and stepped to Cecil’s side as he and the demon squared off. The demon hissed at them and stepped away.
“Oh great, you’re actually working together now.”
“So we can finish you off,” Cynder said. A bright blue and violet flash overwhelmed them and Gail had to cover her eyes. There was a terrible unearthly shriek from the demon that made her shudder.
The sound stopped and soon the light faded. Gail slowly opened her eyes, breathing heavily. The demon was nowhere to be seen and only Cynder and Cecil remained. Little wisps of violet light curled around Cecil’s fingers but slowly began to fade. He turned to look at Gail and smiled a little.
Gail slowly got to her feet, letting out a shaky sigh as she made her way over to them. “Is it over? Is that thing gone?”
“Yes,” Cecil said with a nod. “It’s dead, there’s no chance of it coming back.”
Gail stared at him for a long moment before throwing her arms around Cecil’s neck and hugged him tightly. He stiffened for a moment before smiling and wrapping his arms around her. They held onto each other for awhile until Cynder cleared his throat.
“I apologize but Cecil we need to go.”
Gail looked up with wide eyes. “Go where? Aren’t you staying?”
“Cynder, please don’t make me leave now. We’ve only just-”
“I’m sorry but I have my own orders. Raphael wanted me to bring you back. Besides, he said Gabriel has returned and I’m sure he’ll want to speak with you.”
Cecil’s face lit up a little, then he glanced down at Gail and swallowed. Gail stepped away from him, staring at him with wide eyes. “Does this mean you’re not going to be my guardian anymore?”
“I… I’m not sure,” Cecil murmured. “I guess we’ll just have to find out, won’t we?”
Gail frowned at him and slowly shook her head. “You’d better come back and tell me for sure when you find out. You can’t just leave me like this without ever knowing.”
“I won’t, I promise.” Cecil smiled a little sadly. “I’m sorry I keep doing this to you.”
“You should be,” Gail huffed. “Thought you were supposed to be my guardian, but you just keep running away.”
“I do apologize for that,” Cecil said with a sigh.
“It’s not as if guardians are supposed to personally interact with their charges anyway,” Cynder said. He turned his gaze on Gail and raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think you really need a guardian any longer anyway. You seemed to be handling yourself pretty well without him, wouldn’t you agree?”
Gail stared at him and slowly shook her head. “Maybe, I guess.” She took a deep breath and turned back to Cecil. “I’m going to miss you, so you’d better come back, okay?”
“I will.” He stepped over to her and wrapped his arms around her, hugging her tightly again. “I’ll be back before you know it, promise.”
“You have a skewed view of time so I can’t really trust you,” she mumbled, squeezing him tightly.
Cecil chuckled and stepped away from her, smiling brightly. “I’ll be back, you can count on it.” He turned to Cynder who nodded his head solemnly. They took each others’ hands and vanished out of thin air, leaving Gail to stand there all alone.
She stood there awhile longer before heading back to the house. She was shaking a little after everything that had just happened and all she wanted to do was go lie in her bed and try to sleep. Her mother met her at the door and looked her over. “Gail, what happened to you? Where were you?”
“I was out in the woods,” Gail murmured.
“What were you doing out there?”
She paused before answering then smirked a little. “Helping my guardian angel overcome his demon.”
Her mother stared at her like she was crazy, then Gail shook her head and brushed past her. “Never mind. I need to go take a nap.”