In the beginning, there were two realms: Shamayim, where the superior, celestial beings dwelled in Light and glory, and Sheol, where the Forsaken, or dejected beings, were sentenced to languish in Darkness and misery.
“It’s safe to open your eyes now.”
My stomach dropped in churning anxiety as the thick, dark embrace of the archangel’s wings opened and spread away from me. Light slashed through my eyelids, and I flinched, but I did not open my eyes. I had trouble breathing, and my pulse shuddered in my throat, terrified and uneasy.
It’s not heaven, I reminded myself. You don’t need to be afraid.
No, of course it wasn’t heaven. I would have been incinerated the moment I stepped foot onto that celestial plane. This was something else, a cross between the mortal world and celestial ground. A place for those waiting for heaven’s approval to enter.
But I was not waiting for heaven. Heaven would never approve of me. I still couldn’t believe I was here, and I still wasn’t sure why.
Choice is a double-edged sword. One might choose freedom only to find the choice leads to misery and captivity. Or one might choose to sacrifice what they had in hopes of something more.
Such was my case.
Archangel Barachiel’s wings fluttered near my face, the softness of the air stroking my flaming cheeks.
“Jezbathasat,” he said, his voice soft like falling rain yet holding a strain of command, “open your eyes.”
The word whispered around me, my name, the lexicology that forever branded me a daughter of hell. I swallowed hard and pried my lids open. The white Light of purity and holiness did not assault me or burn me to cinders as I feared it would, and my shoulders relaxed slightly.
“Welcome to the Guardian Angel Academy at Yishuv,” he said.
I looked at him as his golden wings folded and withdrew into his body, leaving him looking as common as the wingless men of the damned I’d witnessed in the depths of Sheol.
Which was my home. Not heaven.
“We are not in heaven,” he said, and I flinched. Were the rumors true? Could angels read the thoughts of lesser beings?
“I know that,” I snapped. “And you should learn respect for privacy.” But my words lacked any venom. I’d made the choice to come here, and in truth, I was terrified. While his motives remained questionable, the archangel had shown kindness to me. I didn’t want to leave the protective embrace of his wings.
Archangel Barachiel walked in front of me without a backward glance, expecting me to follow. His dark brown hair was cut short, and his face held no lines. He did not look any older than a thirty-year-old mortal. He wore a dark suit and concealed his wings, giving no indication of his status. But I knew he was a master at GAA at Yishuv.
Guardian Angel Academy.
I could hardly think the words to myself. I was the newest enrolled student at GAA, but there was no hiding what I really was. In a few brief moments, every student at the academy would know.
And they would hate me.
“Where are we?” I asked. “Are we still in Gehenna?”
Gehenna was an in-between land, a spiritual realm where the newly dead souls gathered to acclimate to their new status before moving onto a more permanent destination. It was a neutral plane, and I’d been deposited there from Sheol so Barachiel could retrieve me. He had too much Light to descend to Sheol.
But this place felt too solid to be Gehenna.
“This is Arcadia. It’s a hidden realm within earth itself, a land of peace and harmony that can only be reached by those who know the way. All three campuses are here, though Yishuv is the biggest. You will only see the other two if you show talents that lead to their specialties.”
Peace. Harmony. Words foreign to my being. Goosebumps popped up over my whole body, and I shuddered, feeling the invasion of righteousness to my soul.
“Where is the campus?” I asked, drudging the words up from somewhere.
“In front of us. We will arrive when you are ready.”
I nodded. I would not be able to return to Sheol until I knew the location well enough to travel between the two. I would stay put until then just to make sure I didn’t get lost. Hell would freeze over before I’d ask an angel for help.
An angel. Hatred for the celestial beings, the ones who placed themselves at a higher standard and thought they were superior to my kind, bubbled up in my chest. How would I tolerate going to school with them, learning their ways, sharing a room with one of them?
I glanced at Barachiel, wondering if he heard my thoughts. He said nothing.
Perhaps because he knew they would hate me as much as I hated them, but it would be one of me against hundreds of them.
“Do not be afraid.”
So he was listening. I knew it. “They will not accept me. They will know what I am.”
He stopped and looked back at me, his eyes trailing over the black chains crisscrossing my exposed flesh, wrapping around my arms and claiming me. Hasatan had relinquished me to the academy so I could become “informed enough to make my choice,” but he had not relinquished the chains that bound me to Sheol. They branded my skin, burying themselves into my body like a sentient tattoo. I tugged on my dark hair, pulling it over my shoulder, but I couldn’t conceal the chains.
“Learning acceptance and forgiveness is part of the curriculum at GAA. You will make a fine candidate for practicing what we preach.”
“Just what I hoped,” I said sarcastically, but he only smiled.
He continued walking, and I rolled my eyes before trailing after. The archangels and master instructors had already graduated from GAA. Supposedly they had mastered their baser emotions, and it would take much more than the attitude of a Forsaken to rile him up.
We walked for an eternity through rolling green hills and fields of purple grain and deep valleys with winding rivers. Would he let me wander forever? Peace and harmony weren’t so bad. I could live out the rest of my damned forever here.
“Jezbathasat,” he said, interrupting my reflections, “it’s time.”
I stopped walking and steeled myself for my first glimpse of Guardian Angel Academy—and GAA’s first glimpse of me. “Just Jez,” I said softly. “Tell them my name is Jez.”
He nodded, and I sucked in a breath.
The horizon wavered, trembled, and then the snow-capped mountains in the distance became obscured by tall, spiracle buildings. I caught my breath in spite of my determination to remain aloof. I’d never seen structures like this in the land of fire and brimstone. One twisted up so high, the final spiral disappeared into the clouds. Others appeared as medieval castles, squatting possessively over the perfect grass.
“This is a school,” I said in awe.
“This is your school,” he said. “As long as you wish it to be.”
I saw students now, wandering the grounds dressed in dark slacks and skirts. Black and white wings jutted out from their button-up shirts, folded tight against their bodies or spread wide like an eagle’s as they milled about, school books in hands.
I had not seen adolescent angels before. All of the mortals who died in their adolescence went to Gehenna and were offered the location of their choice to finish out their learning. If they chose to descend to the dark world, they lost their youthful appearance and continued to age through the coming millennia, but they didn’t die.
Because only angels of Light were allowed to be young.
The injustice burned through my veins, but I swallowed it back, wishing to mask my feelings from Barachiel. The time for retribution was not yet at hand.
But it would come. And I would bring it.
A chime sounded, ringing out over the courtyard, and the students turned toward it. One by one, most of the black-winged angels stepped into the shortest building on the grounds, a long, rectangular edifice that looked out of place among the sweeping, rounded structures. The white wings dispersed as well, heading into various buildings.
“Come. That is your cue.”
“I—I’m not sure I can.” Fear gripped me, and my feet remained rooted to the spot. I looked down at my black clothing, my nonstandard halter and torn skirt. My outward appearance reflected my inner self: unsure, nonconforming, and tattered.
Barachiel did not move. “It is your choice. But you will not regret this, Jezbathasat.”
His words rang with truth and promise. Was it a manipulation, or could I believe him?
But I didn’t really have a choice. Hasatan had warned me of the consequences of failure. And his words I could trust.
“I will go,” I said, and I moved my feet forward, closing the distance between myself and the building of my own accord.
Barachiel led me through a side door and to a seat tucked at the back of the massive hall. I sat with Barachiel as a wingless female with almond-shaped eyes and jet black hair in a white business suit stepped onto the stage.
“Welcome, angelings,” she said, her face wreathed in a dazzling light as she smiled. I squinted against it, fearing I’d go blind. “I’m Archangel Selaphiel. I coordinate new student orientation. I’m also the master for Human Relations, a class you will all be required to take in your second year.
“I know there is so much new information for you, but let me start by saying, I’m sorry you find yourselves here.”
For one brief moment, I thought she spoke directly to me. And then I remembered every new student was here because they’d recently died. I wasn’t the only one in a new place.
“I know it’s a shock,” she went on. “I’m here to help you adjust, and we will also have classes geared toward teaching you what you need to know to move forward in this life. We’ve tailored the school to be a familiar environment for you, with customs and technologies like what you had on earth.”
I leaned toward Barachiel and whispered, “Do the other students know about me?”
He shook his head. “You are just one more new student starting your first year at the academy.”
A few students glanced back at us at the low murmur of his voice, and I sank lower in my seat, grateful for the darkness around us. Darkness. Good for hiding.
Not so much all the Light that surrounded the campus and kept trying to penetrate my shield.
I wrapped my hands around my arms, wishing for something to cover myself. As if not having wings wasn’t bad enough . . .
“Now let me tell you about the goals of the school,” the woman continued. “The mission of Guardian Angel Academy is to provide you with the knowledge and experience you need to minister to mortals on earth. In doing so, you will become more equipped to join the celestial beings in heaven, or Shamayim, as we call it here, and make your final placement. But first there are a series of tasks you must complete at the academy. GAA is built as a four-year program, though you may repeat a year as often as necessary to master a task. During your first and second years, you are only Guardian Apprentices, or GAs. We will be reteaching you many of the concepts and principles you learned in Shamayim before you were born but have forgotten through mortality. You will notice that your memories start to come back, but it could be a full decade before you remember everything from your first existence.”
None of that applied to me. I was not created in Shamayim. I had no memories to recover.
“The second year are allowed to watch what goes on on earth and learn how to travel there, but you won’t go to earth until your third year.
“During your third year, you should be assigned to your first ward, and then you will become a Guardian in Training, or a GIT. You will be mentored and guided. You might recall the temptations you had during your mortal life; our job as Guardians is to be the protector and the guide, helping mortals make the correct decision. If it is possible, we often save them from an untimely death, though you will learn it’s not always possible to do so.
“The fourth year is a mere formality; you will receive a new assignment, and this time you will not be mentored. Classes will continue in between your Guardianship, and you will become a master in your field and perfunctory in other fields. Should you decide to continue as a Guardian, after you graduate from the academy, you will continue with your ward until the end of their earthly days. From there, you have choices: you can take another assignment, or you may choose another profession.”
Professions. Assignments. Guardians. The words swirled around me, and I grasped at their meanings, trying to clutch the intangible. Angels got to choose what they wanted to be? There were options? How could one make such a decision? There were no choices in Sheol, no consequences for me to weigh. I felt overwhelmed by the idea of making a choice for my existence. What if I chose the wrong thing?
“Now, a little about your field. In a moment we will move all of you to the manifestation room. This is a room full of Light and energy. Your spirit will be a magnet to these energies, and you’ll discover a propensity for a certain gift. That doesn’t mean it’s your only gift, and it might not even be your strongest. However, each of the three GAA campuses specializes in teaching skills for one of these gifts. Depending what you manifest, you could stay here at Yishuv or go to the Academy at Zion or the Academy at Sinai.
“About this time, there’s always a student who wants to know what happens if they drop out of school.” She smiled at the angels around me, but they looked as nervous as I felt, too uneasy to return her warm expression. “You’ll soon learn that everything is about choice here. If you do not wish to continue at GAA, you are free to go. We’ll show you your options and let you choose what you do next with your life.”
I snorted and rolled my eyes, sinking lower in my seat. Yes, heaven was all about choice. The choice to choose them or choose eternal damnation. I could just imagine what the options would be for any student who tried to leave the academy early.
“However, most of you will want to stay. The academy is a spiritually fulfilling and emotionally connecting place. You’ll make friendships here that will last you throughout eternity. You’ll come to understand yourself and the universe around you in ways you didn’t know possible.
“Oh, one last thing.” She looked out at everyone, and suddenly from behind her back, golden wings sprouted. A murmur rose up from the students, and even I had to admit they were impressive. The tips of the wings sparked and glowed, and she opened and closed them for effect. “I’m sure you’ve all noticed your new wings.”
She’d broken the solemnity, the fear that paralyzed them. Some titters and chuckles echoed from the seats.
“Each of you has a set of black wings, symbolic of your decision to follow the decree from Shamayim and go to earth. When you finish your second year and become a GIT, you’ll receive a set of white wings. Your assignment and other humans won’t see these wings, and once you graduate from the academy, you can make your wings retract at will. The white wings will be your last set. Though you have these beautiful wings, let me remind you of one thing: flying is not allowed on campus, except at the Skyball pitch. We are not owls, to spend our time flapping about.”
She smiled to take any sting from her words, and others laughed with her.
“A few of you, one, maybe two, may end up becoming one of the heavenly hosts. You will understand why as you finish your education.”
I understood why, and my heathen ichor boiled in my veins. Because war was an eventuality. Sheol knew it. Apparently heaven did too.
I immediately banished the thoughts. The angel beside me could invade my mind, and I needed this guarded and private.
“If you feel the call to join the heavenly army, if you have a desire to serve in such a capacity, please let us know.
“After you manifest today, a master from your particular campus will find you and take you home. This campus, the academy at Yishuv, is home for all Empatya angels. The academy at Zion is for the Metamorfozahs. And the academy at Sinai is for the Teles. Don’t worry if none of those terms mean anything to you; by the end of today, you’ll understand.
“Your campus is your home, and the angels you meet today are your new family. You will take your meals with them, have classes with them, spar with them, and room with them. They will not take the place of the familial bonds you had with your mortal family, but they will fill a spot you didn’t know was empty. So get to know your fellow angels, and don’t be afraid to open up to them.”
I studied this woman as she spoke, noting the other angels standing silent guard behind her. Their expressions were calm and benevolent, yet somehow the sight of the six of them, endowed with heavenly power, sent chills down my spine.
They could destroy me in a matter of moments. They could tear me apart limb by limb until every atom that made up my essence was scattered to the universe.
It had been done before.