The Summerlands, Present Moment
The last time I died, it was a Tuesday. Don’t ask me how I know that. It’s just stuck in my brain as a cold, hard fact. Well . . . that and the slightly more troubling realization that I took the guy who’s in charge of all evil as a mate. But I digress.
I don’t recall the days leading up to my death, never mind the years. I remember arriving in the Underworld and Morgana’s chaotic escort out of the place a short while later because of it. But then there’s a big skip forward to the final minutes of my life. So I’ll start at the end, and maybe that will help me piece it together myself.
Embarrassingly enough, I was asleep when it happened, so I was a goner before I’d fully registered what was going on. Not an honorable way for a warrior to die, but there you have it.
How Morgana even got close enough to do the deed is beyond me. There’s an enchanted river to cross and an army of ill-tempered dark angels to navigate. So when the scent of sandalwood wormed its way into a rather good dream, I didn’t think much of it. Why would I with all those hulking ex-celestials around for protection? And I’m sorry, but who wears perfume to a stealth mission?
The fragrance was enough for my subconscious to begin a reluctant climb to the surface. But it was the blinding pain that got me the rest of the way out—just in time to see the dagger buried in my chest. So mission accomplished, no matter how clumsily executed.
The dark witch stared into my face as I clod-hopped to the other side of the veil, her eyes wide and dancing with delight. Maybe because thirty years prior, my arrival got her booted out of Mortegol’s bed . . . and tossed from a realm where she would never age. Nothing like three decades of pent-up anger as motivation to murder an enemy.
She did look older, and that’s not just me being catty.
Okay, maybe a little catty.
Fun fact: you witness your own death. And here’s an interesting aside, you also experience the emotions of those next to you. Like most, I hoped I would “go” peacefully. But that day, I tapped into the soul of an aging, angry witch intent on revenge. Not so peaceful in there.
Afterward (and by that, I mean once I’d croaked), two dark angels who should have been protecting me dragged my executioner away instead. The portal sucked me in soon after, so I couldn’t tell you the extent of the fallout. But it’s safe to say they didn’t whisk Morgana Sorcha Balfour away for a champagne lunch. No matter her revered magical bloodline or witchy pedigree, she had just murdered the boss’s girlfriend, and there was probably a steep price to pay for that.
So now you know as much as I do—except that I deserved to die that way, I guess. Mainly because I had broken just about every Universal Bylaw there is. For starters, light warriors aren’t supposed to venture into the demonic realm. We lose our powers there . . . maybe as a sharp reminder not to go.
There are a bunch of other rules I won’t bore you with, but I should tell you one minor detail. No one can force us into the Underworld, not even the king of the place. We must go willingly, and that means I happily plodded into the joint. And here’s the real kicker. Somebody (and I’m guessing Mortegol) bulk-erased the memories of my previous life, so I have no idea why I would have done that.
After my less-than-heroic demise, I’d spent the equivalent of seventy years in Morningside—a human-back-to-soul settlement in the afterlife. They’re called recovery villages, and we have ones that mimic every Earth-plane period and region here. All of them have veils that prevent all-knowing beings from knowing you’re inside. And that’s a huge plus when you’re in hiding.
There are several drawbacks to using a recovery village as a hideout, though. They fall under the rule of stripped-down physics, so magic isn’t even a possibility. You must do everything like a mortal on Earth. You also can’t search the Akashic Records inside one, which I needed to do—badly.
Although I am a goddess, I do get to live as a human for the first twenty-one years of each incarnation. And when I die (or stupidly end up murdered), I come right back here ready to do it all again. I can stay in the Summerlands as long as I want between lives. (I don’t need to be in any particular place to do my job.) But I was tired of hiding out in the simulated third-dimensional realm. I was eager to head back to the actual third dimension and just get on with it.
I am one of four gatekeepers of the Earth plane. Kricket, Andrea, and Helena are the other three. We’re called elementals, and we are half-human half-celestial—mass infused with light code. It’s our combined energy that makes up the ethereal superhighway connecting the Summerlands and Earth. That’s only a small part of the gig, though. Preserving the balance of light and dark is the main reason we exist. Well, that and keeping aliens out of the third dimension.
Why the need for being half-human, you say? Why not skip the messy blood and tissue business and simply zoom around helping humans as heavenly beings? We tried that during the first incarnation of Earth with less than stellar results. Cosmic energy vibrates at a speed that works like an atom bomb on flesh and bone. Think of death metal blasting through the world’s loudest speakers. Then stick your head between them, and that can give you a pretty good idea of the type of force I’m talking about. Got it? Now multiply that by a thousand.
On the other hand, our human mass vibrates slowly—like a funky slow groove with a low-thumping bass line. That makes it easier for souls to latch on and take the cosmic ride back home. It also keeps humans from blowing themselves sky-high when they tap into our power. Sort of like the governor inside a water valve prevents you from scalding yourself in the shower.
And that’s where the first Earth went wrong. Horribly.
Souls got stuck in the void after slipping out of their mortal vessels. (Our astral energy vibrated too fast for them to recognize it as their ticket to ride.) The second (more gruesome) problem was that mortals who tried to engage divine power were exploding at an alarming rate.
But not to worry. By the seventh day of the seventh incarnation of Earth, we had witches, a cross between humans and elementals. We had the Underworld to provide balance, and we elementals got our mortal sleeves. Then there was light and dark upon the earth. People stopped exploding. Light beings got home just fine, and Goddess and every other soul saw that it was good.
Being half-mortal has another purpose too. It’s a gift from Source. We call it the dream of being human, and I have always loved it. But it also means we can die just like straight-up humans. Archangels are the only ones among us who never push up proverbial daisies, never blink out, never have their memories wiped. They just are and have been since the beginning of time. I like my situation far better. I love believing I’m mortal, and I enjoy the intermittent breaks from knowing all the secrets of the universe.
So, all fifty-nine years of my previous life had gone AWOL; slap out of my head. That meant I needed to piece some things together on my own. Like why I threw over Archangel Michael for the king of the blasted Underworld. Let’s compare: The Prince of Angels versus the Prince of Darkness. That’s quite the pivot even for me. Besides, Michael has been my mate since the beginning of a little thing called time. And I knew Mortegol about as well as one might know their dentist. If that dentist were in charge of all evil on Earth, I guess.
I also couldn’t fathom why I came back here again when I obviously belong on DarkStar now. That’s the afterlife for low-energy beings, the place many people mistake for hell. It’s not. It’s more like a seedy nightclub that never closes, one that instills a constant need to rinse grime from your soul. There’s no torture or lake of fire or some evil overlord punishing you for your sins. However, pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust are available by the truckloads. Those might be known as the seven deadly sins on Earth, but DarkStar residents seem to live with them just fine.
Suffice it to say that waking up at home shocked me to the core. I was glad of it—like break-into-handsprings glad. None of it made any sense, though. I had no idea what would make me want to go to the Underworld, let alone stay. Had I grown tired of being a warrior of light? Had Goddess done something to anger me?
That’s possible, you know, to be angry with one’s creator. It’s even possible to have full-blown shouting matches with her, although they are a bit one-sided. Goddess never shouts. She just observes, wearing a placid expression while you rant and rave red-faced and sputtering like a lunatic. Then she teaches you something that makes you feel foolish for doubting her Supreme Beingness. It can be downright annoying.
Anyway, my feet had barely touched the green grass of home when I flashed myself to the border of Morningside. I don’t mind telling you I shot over that line like a deer escaping a hunter’s bow. Archangels can read minds, and I knew Morningside would keep them from poking around in my head. Plus, the coffee is excellent there.
The universe has four such mind readers I’d been avoiding. Well, five if you count our sheriff, known around these parts as God, Goddess, Source, and I did count her—boy howdy. Veils don’t work on her, and I’d spent a good deal of my time here waiting for that cosmic shoe to drop. It hadn’t . . . and somehow that felt worse.
Now here I am on this lounger watching the countdown while my soul clan members get ready to play their roles in my next life.
I sighed and looked around the control room. A few minutes more, and I’d forget again. Two decades of ignorant bliss. Two decades where none of them could ask questions about where I’d been or what I’d done. Talk about hallelujah.
I watched Alden saunter over, greeting everyone he passed.
Like everyone here, he is light code but often takes the form he’s in now—human male, mid-thirties, slim build, chestnut hair, round tortoiseshell glasses. He’s usually in this blue jumper, too, representing water, Alden’s elemental sign.
“Okay, you ready?” he asked me, not a care in the world.
“You running for office? I think you missed some souls while glad-handing. Take your time. It’s not like I’m dodging an archangel or anything.”
“What? You said you wanted some time to think. But it looked to me like you were talking to yourself. Have you finally cracked? I wouldn’t doubt it.”
“I wasn’t talking to myself. I was talking to my peeps.”
“The humans who share my fire energy. I want them to hold onto a few thoughts for me, so I can pull them up later.”
“Aren’t there rules against using mortals as your personal memory bank?”
“No . . . maybe . . . I don’t know. Anyway, they don’t mind. Here, let me have that.” I snatched the tablet out of Alden’s hands.
He rolled his storm-cloud-gray eyes. They were usually brown, but I like the new color. It gives him an air of mystery, which pairs well with his job. Alden is the lead coordinator for the launch site, the place souls go to get themselves to the third dimension. More importantly, he’s my best friend, confidant, and co-conspirator in many a shenanigan. He says I enjoy tormenting him with my crazy ideas, but he always goes along . . . eventually.
My friend likes male energy, always has. He’s also rather fond of his soul name and never changes it for Earth-plane visits. So far, I’ve had several thousand sons named Alden, all the same soul getting ready to launch me to the third rock from the sun. The very one who had his arms crossed and was frowning at me while I poked away at his handheld.
“What are you doing?”
I flicked my eyes at him. “Just making a few adjustments.”
I found what I wanted and set it to thirty-three, the highest setting on this blasted thing. Souls bound for the Earth plane go with their Intuition Level set between one and seven. Elementals get a solid twenty, but I needed more this time—like full-throttle.
“You can’t do that,” Alden said. He grabbed the tablet and brought the setting back down.
“You know very well who.”
“If the highest settings were off-limits, they wouldn’t be there, would they?”
I could see the wheels spinning behind his gray eyes. “But I’ll get into trouble,” he said, nudging the glasses he didn’t need to his forehead. Where they added to his credibility before, now they looked more like goggles on a mad scientist.
I did some eye-rolling of my own. “That’s an Earth concept.”
“Uh . . . I’ll get a stern talking to . . . at the very least.”
“Oh, no,” I said in mock horror. “In that case, bust that baby open and push my intuitive level to a hundred.”
He didn’t answer, just widened his stance and tucked the tablet under an arm—the side I couldn’t reach.
“I wouldn’t do it unless it was necessary. You of all souls know how much I love thinking I’m human.”
“I do,” he said, rubbing his face with both hands. That told me he already knew he would end up on the wrong side of this thing.
“And I usually take less than my allotted twenty because of it, don’t I?”
He groaned, but I could tell I was wearing him down. I always do.
I dropped the tough warrior act and softened my voice. “This is a critical mission, Alden. When something’s not right, I need to feel like I’m gonna barf. On the other hand, if something is right, I want to hear angels singing and get morphine-level high. Obvious signs. You know how the human mind tricks you into doubting yourself.”
“Oh, yeah,” Alden said. Then he shuddered, probably remembering one of his own human lives.
“Besides, if you don’t let me do it, I’ll turn off the boom filter, and when I hit the gate, everyone in the southern hemisphere will think the world is ending.”
A look of genuine horror crossed his face. “That’s blackmail. You wouldn’t.”
Probably not, but his doubt was working for me. I’d done crazier things in the past, uh, with Alden by my side doing them right along with me. “Just one of the tricks I learned on the Earth plane,” I said, lacing my fingers behind my head.
He didn’t seem to be budging, and Alden can be worse than an old mule at times, so I decided to bring the whip down. I propped myself on an elbow and set my jaw. “Who’s in charge here?”
Alden gave me a blank stare.
“When she’s not around.”
Well, me, four archangels and three other elementals, but they weren’t here, were they. I waited for a beat to see if Goddess might pop in to give me a stern talking-to—she didn’t.
“You’re like a rock in the shoe. Anybody ever told you that?”
I fluttered my lashes. “You have . . . several times.”
He sighed. “Okay, but hurry it up.”
I took the tablet and set my intuitive level back to thirty-three, wishing there really was a one hundred. While I was at it, I scrambled my wake triggers. Better not shake my noggin up too soon, I decided and passed the handheld back.
“Care to make any more adjustments, Fire Goddess? You know, to really help me lose my job?”
“Yeah. Let’s make me a Sumo wrestler.”
“Oh, you’re hilarious,” Alden said as he centered the atomizer over me. “Too bad I’m sending you to the twentieth. You’d kill in the eighth. Say . . . that’s not a bad idea . . . do you know how to juggle?”
I stuck my tongue out at him, but he just smiled and went back to the task of blasting me into outer space.
All souls have their memories wiped clean before each incarnation, but we keep them for the journey. Traveling from here to the Earth plane is a heck of a ride, and we stay in full awareness until we integrate with the human body. That’s just in case we panic and want to head back home—another gift from Source.
My memories are erased too, but I also get something called a package. It’s like a time-release capsule that meters out bits of soul memory and measured doses of my powers once I turn twenty-one. This time, I was going with a second package embedded behind the first. That one was more like a pipe bomb, and if it went off too soon, I’d turn into a blathering idiot.
We call that splitting, and it means that every soul memory since the beginning of time rushes in on you at once. Think of a levy breaking, but the water it’s holding back is the ocean, and you’re standing at the base of the wall when it crumbles. Want to know the cherry on that cake? If I did have the misfortune of losing my mind in that terrifying way, I would live that way for a good long time. Basically, until my half-human body gave out from natural causes. Fun, right?
There were a million reasons to bury my trip to the Underworld in a deep, dark hole, and most of them screamed at me while I was embedding the thing. But because I needed to know more than I wanted to forget, in it went, and there it stayed, ticking like a time bomb in my head.
That second package was the one that had Alden’s teeth on edge. I had to tell him about it. Otherwise, he’d discover it on his own during the final check and shut this whole business down. We’d argued . . . over several bottles of his favorite Earth-plane wine. He forgot a soul could get drunk in Morningside, and I forgot to mention it. (Whoops.) So he’d drunkenly agreed to let the explosive ride. Now the tension of our agreement was showing on his face. Well, that and a good old-fashioned human-style hangover.
“Nervous?” he asked.
“Do I look nervous?”
“No, I’m just nervous for you, I guess. Promise me you’ll be careful.” He met my eyes. “You know I believe in you, Seraphina, but having an extra package is dangerous, and I can’t protect you from here.”
Because of his job, Alden suffers from human emotional bleed-through more than any other soul here. And while I hadn’t shared any of this Prince of Darkness business with him, he and I are close enough that he knew some kind of unsavory game was afoot.
I squeezed his hand. “Hey, Alden. I’ve got this. Besides, if I did blow my stack, you’d probably jump in as my Nurse Ratched, and I’m not giving you a sweet opportunity like that.”
His nose reddened, and I could tell he was trying to put on a brave face. He nodded. “Want your song?”
“You know it.” I glanced at the countdown—a minute thirty to go.
The Summerlands’ launch site resembles mission control at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Well, Kennedy’s mission control looks like our launch site.) And just like when human astronauts are about to blast off into space, souls filled our control room jostling to get an eyeful of me.
Elementals and archangels are the Summerlands’ version of rock stars, I guess. Our job is to protect the dream of being human, and we’ve done it for several billion years. Just like souls, Earth has had many lives. And we warriors of light have stood guard over every reset, protecting the balance of light and dark in each of Earth’s incarnations. Maybe that has something to do with it.
Alden busied himself entering the final coordinates, and I smiled at the soul who sings my travel song. He always comes for my launches, too, although he has the backstage pass. The song refers to the exhilaration I feel during every journey, my dream of being human, and the mysteries I rediscover. It’s just shy of five minutes, the exact amount of time it takes to get from here to there. Clever boy, that one.
Speaking of rock stars, my travel song is only one of many that make my soul friend a famous human in the twentieth century. The period I would be entering the Earth plane this time.
To be clear, the years I would spend on the blue planet for this mission had already happened, hadn’t happened yet, and were also happening right now. Time isn’t linear. It’s not even a loop. It’s more like a big ball of yarn that keeps overlapping itself with no real beginning, middle, or end. In the Summerlands, there’s no time at all. This ‘time versus no time’ business has always made my half-human brain hurt. More so when I’m not fully awake. Sometimes I’m convinced I’ve got a handle on it. Then poof. Off it goes again into the mist.
Alden rubbed his hands together. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
I glanced at the countdown—twenty seconds.
I uncrossed my ankles and placed my palms flat on the lounger, making full contact with the sub-generator.
Alden put a hand on my shoulder. “Okay. It’s going to be a little choppy heading into the Milky Way. The interdimensional winds are heavy, but if it gets too weird, I can pull you back.”
I blew out a breath and nodded.
The lounger vibrated, and a second later, I was inside a tiny ball of red light, about the size of the point on a needle. The familiar guitar licks of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” kicked in, followed by a hard-driving beat that filled my brain, and I was off, zooming through space and time.
I played air guitar as I sailed by the Andromeda Galaxy. It was a super weird flight through the Milky Way—bumpier and louder than usual—and I was about two shakes from getting sucked into an alternate universe at one point.
Warp-speed navigation under control, I sang at the top of my lungs, roaring by constellations: Chamaeleon, Hydrus, Tucana, Phoenix. On approach to the south gate—three-hundred-thirty-three miles above Australia—I laughed and flicked that boom filter right off. (Just keeping the boy on his toes.) He caught it like I knew he would, and I flew through the portal without a sound.
I entered Earth’s atmosphere, and adrenaline coursed through my veins. My memories would be gone in under a minute. (That part always gets my blood pumping.) But I pushed it from my mind and slung my head from side to side, rockin’ out as I shot through the blue skies of the Earth plane in the year 1998, Halloween day.
The song faded, and I wailed, having just taken the first breath of human life into my tiny half-mortal lungs. It stung like crazy.
Then . . . the lights went out.