Wings don’t make the angel, and hellfire doesn’t make a demon.
Those words, inscribed over the entrance of the Millennium Foundation’s Paranormal Division, itched at the back of Balan’s mind as he stared at what appeared to be a young woman in the center of the forest clearing.
He’d heard tales. Someone, too steeped in Judeo-Christian symbolism, had fucked it up, and fucked it up royally. Bad enough for the board to think it worth carving the words into the heavy marble haunch. Some fool unleashed a gossamer because it wore a dime store halo. Conveniently enough, the stories always left out the name of the offending agent. Nothing for Balan to clean up, no one for him to go after.
At least the brimstone kids dealt with anyone that got to aggressive. They’d make cocktails out of holy water for a laugh, and most of the time, the laugh was all it took. But if charm failed, and you wouldn’t listen to logic, they’d protect themselves. Gossamers thought, gossamers needed fools. They’d protect the person that freed them, made sure they never learned their lesson, made sure that stupidity stayed in the gene pool. Made Balan’s life some kind of hell.
“But whatcha gonna do?” Balan asked the pale creature bound to the bier in the clearing.
She didn’t answer, of course. Couldn’t answer. Gagged. Didn’t matter. Rhetorical question. Sometimes, the only thing left is to build a fire.
“What did you say?” asked a gravelly voice on the other end of the clearing.
“Do you want a smoke?”
The other man grunted his assent. Balan didn’t smoke, but he kept enough on him for field assignments. For some reason people trusted you more if you fed their addictions. Easier to work with. He tossed the pack to the moonlit shape he knew to be Sullivan. A match strike illuminated the other man’s craggy face for an instant before the darkness returned. Only a tiny glowing red dot remained, a dwarf star faded from a once brilliant sun.
“How long?” Balan asked.
“Thirteen minutes,” the other man said, gray eyes fixed on the sky.
The old rituals called for a strange precision unique to the patterns of the stars and the moon, patterns not many people could read. One of the only reasons Sullivan got assigned as many field missions as he did, coupled with his notoriety as a lunchroom fridge thief. They wanted him out of the office, but Captain Kinner didn’t trust the man. That’s why she sent Balan as back-up on this op.
“How’d you wind up catching her?”
“It. Don’t fucking humanize it. That thing will eat your face if given half a chance.
As if on cue, the winged woman’s mouth twisted in a snarl, exposing rows of sharp teeth buried in the thick foam of the gag. Balan’s fingers wrapped around the handle of his gun before he realized what he was doing. He relaxed his grip as he took a deep, calming breath.
“Didn’t answer my question, Sullivan.”
Silence. Balan waited. Silence didn’t bother him. Not like it bothered the other man.
“I got lucky, I guess. Right place at the right time and all that happy horseshit.”
Balan brushed his hand across the gossamer’s face. She finally turned her gaze to meet his.
“What do you mean, ‘hm’?”
“We’ve lost eight MFP agents to gossamers this year. Co-ordinated teams with tactical support.”
Her expression bothered Balan. No rage. No hunger. A little fear, but mostly just a placid serenity.
“What are you implying?”
“I’m not implying anything. Just noting.”
Balan’s fingers traced the length of the woman’s neck, reaching behind her to check her upper back. There, right at the shoulder blades, the bases of her wings. Light, ephemeral, and tightly bound, but firmly attached. Not a modded human. Sullivan had somehow captured a real gossamer.
“Whatcha doin’, buddy?” Sullivan asked.
“I just wanted to – ” Balan started to say.
“Look, I don’t really want to know what kind of freaky shit you’re into, but eleven minutes is a hard deadline, so you’ll have to catch your own toys if you want to play with one.”
Balan fought down a shiver. Sullivan reported the gossamer two hours ago. Ten minutes later, Balan found himself in a helicopter headed for this primitive forest in the middle of nowhere. He’d gotten to the clearing as fast as he could, but the other agent was alone with his prey for over an hour.
“What did you do?”
“It doesn’t matter, does it? We’re about to burn the bitch.”
Fire. According to the ritual Sullivan uncovered on a dig a few weeks prior, it was the only way to take out a gossamer for good.
Balan eyed the female figure once more. Shrouded in white, garlanded with marigolds, she lay on brushwood waiting for the cleansing flames. Deceptively innocent looking, considering that her entire body was a weapon.
“I’m going to have to report you for this, man. You can’t be doing shit like that to the paras. Not even a gossie.”
In the red glow of the remnant of the cigarette, Sullivan’s lips tightened.
“First we finish the ritual. Then you do what you gotta do.”
That same itch tingled in the back of Balan’s mind. Nobody tried that with a gossamer because it universally ended poorly for the attacker.
“How much longer?”
Sullivan moved to the bound figure, checking her bonds, the placement of the flowers. As quietly as he could, Balan crept behind him. Not even really a challenge. Here in to woods, it was practically impossible for him to make any noise, even drawing his handgun from his holster.
The anguished screech of the gossamer drowned out the sound of Balan’s weapon firing. Sullivan dropped to the ground, blood leaking from a new hole in his forehead. The paranormal being writhed in her bonds as he riffled through the fallen agent’s pockets, taking back his pack of smokes. Her jaws snapped at the air, scraps of shredded gag fluttering around her head.
“He unleashed you didn’t he? That’s why you wouldn’t hurt him.”
She stopped struggling, settling in to glare at Balan. Eyes locked, he stepped closer.
Her eyes widened. Balan took another step closer, pressing the advantage.
“Not terribly useful. That’s the name he called you, but it means little to you. Vestigial. Who are you?”
The being known as Cora closed her eyes and looked away, but it was too late.
“There we go. Obmanshchyk Koroleva.”
She shivered. Names plucked from thoughts in other languages never translated perfectly, but it would serve his purpose.
The gossamer sniffed the air before she spoke. Her thick, Eastern European accent surprised him. “Human. Mortal. With a hint of… oak?”
“Close enough, yeah.”
“There is still time. Complete the ritual. Truly set me free and I shall reward you for all eternity.”
Balan shrugged. “Eternity never tempted me. Besides, I’m not convinced you wouldn’t make an exception to the ‘never hurt the one that frees you’ rule just for me.”
Cora laughed. “Can you blame a girl for trying? After all, your father was dumb enough to fuck a tree. But it doesn’t matter. No matter what, I win.”
Balan walked to the edge of the clearing. “How so?”
“You cannot kill me. You cannot bring my back to the Foundation or I will devour you. These bonds will not hold me forever, so leaving me here is the same as setting you free.”
Balan broke a sizable branch off one of the tall oaks nearby. He ignored the cry of pain he heard in his mind.
“I’m sorry, sister, but this needs to be done,” he whispered to the tree, hoping she’d understand.
As he returned, Cora called out to him. “Oh, you’re going to hit me with a stick. No one has ever thought to do that before. Woe is me I shall be undone.”
Balan tapped her forehead with the bough. Faster than he could see, the gossamer struck the branch, biting off a large chunk.
“Feed me!” she said with a laugh. “Go ahead. All you do is make me stronger.”
Balan drove the remaining bit of the tree limb into the ground. His fingers grasped the moist dirt.
“By my mother’s blood, by the sap that flows through this trunk, through all children of the oak, I bind thee, Obmanshchyk Koroleva.”
A look of horror spread across her face. “No! You can’t! I shall be bound to no man! Never again!”
Cora tried to spit out bits of bark and xylem, but it was too late. The sap now mingled with her blood.
“Look, if it’s any consolation, I didn’t bind you to me. I’m not that much of an idiot.”
Her eyes locked on his. “What then? Who?”
Balan shook his head. “Not a who. A where. Here. These woods are yours to haunt, but only for a mile or two around the tree. And when this oak finally falls, you’ll fade back into the Seeming.”
“Why not cut it down now and be done with it?”
Balan sighed. “The wings don’t make you an angel, but they don’t make you a demon, either. You get a chance to choose how you live your life. It’s the best I could do.”
He stepped closer, to within the reach of her razor-sharp teeth. “You’ve got a choice now. I’m going to undo the ropes. Killing me won’t undo what I’ve done, but I won’t be able to stop you if you want revenge.”
Her body tensed as he undid the ropes holding, loosing her wings last. She watched him warily as he stepped away, but she never struck out.
“Leave the body, please.”
Balan raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t heard of the gossamer keeping trophies.
“I’m… I’m hunger.” she said, her voice barely a whisper.
“Ah. Of course.”
“And on nights like this, when the moon is full, you will come visit? I promise not to try to kill you until after we’ve talked each night.”
Balan smiled. “When I can, I will. When work doesn’t take me away.”
“Good,” she said with a smile of her own. “But go now.”
She eyed Sullivan’s body meaningfully. Balan nodded and turned back into the woods. This felt right. She belonged there, in the half light of the moon, where reality was a dream.
Each step towards the extraction site brought him more in tune with the mundane world. He’d have hours of explanations to give, and paperwork to fill out, but that was a small price to pay. He’d done it. He could finally pass through that stone archway without a pang of guilt. He’d cleaned up the original mess.