The Victory Perspective

By E.J. Kellett

Fantasy, General fiction, Religion & spirituality

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144
20 mins

Are You Ready?

The truth around the downfall of your race should be told. It may serve as a lesson for those who still cling to the desolate remnants of civilization or as a warning for those who may, in time, reclaim this land. Telling this story affords a sliver of hope that those of you who remain, will know the true meaning of your existence.
You were a race created and urged to flourish for one selfish and malicious purpose. So heavily manipulated to satisfy the whim of a single individual, you can hardly be blamed for your own shortcomings. You cannot be held liable for failing to see through your highly manufactured existence or for following the altered perspective of truth blindly. It was how you were made. The creation and ultimate destruction of your world made possible through one inherent and undeniable need: your need to believe.
Human belief was God's master stroke. It overcame your greatest fear; that your hard and painful lives might be pointless. In order to survive, you needed belief that you meant something, that you had a purpose. And at the end, when you left your mortal flesh, you would be taken to a place of eternal happiness.
The great human delusion you all suffered allowed God's greatest victory. By creating blind belief, God commanded ultimate control.
Your inherent desire for significance blinded you to reality. How do you know what you think is true? Is it truth at all? Your purpose must be told.
As with all stories, the best place to start is the beginning. This is the truth.





1
The Beginning

He felt like he was dying, even though he didn't know what that meant. No one should remember the moment their life began. But this memory would stay with Gabriel forever. His body slowly worked to dissolve the panic, each painful breath chipped away at the fear blocking his chest. He sat, blinded by brightness. His watering eyes moved slowly across the calm landscape. An involuntary sharp breath whistled through his teeth. Lying on the sand, was another body.
It coughed. Gabriel watched as the other came to life. "Hello," Gabriel said, his speech coming naturally.
"Hello," the other responded with a cocked, bushy eyebrow. "Who are you?"
"I am Gabriel, I think," he said, losing confidence as he spoke.
"I am Michael." The response came quickly. "I think." He finished with a smile.
"Where are we?" Gabriel asked, natural trust calmed the frayed edges of his nerves. Michael gave a heavy shrug.
"That's a fire," Michael said, nodding his head toward the crackling flames a short way down the beach. It was a conical blaze, the sparks licked toward the blue expanse above.
"I know," replied Gabriel, pushing the question of how he knew out of his thoughts. By unspoken agreement, they rose to their feet, unused limbs wobbling as they found their first footfalls on the sand.
Gabriel poked around the fire, waves of heat assaulted their faces. His first lesson was quickly learned. Flames should not be touched. He jerked his hand from the heat and shook it to stop the burning sensation. To distract himself from the pain, he turned in slow circles looking at the surroundings. The wide stretch of beach sloped upward to a dense forest of brilliant greens and downward to a mass of water moving gently against the sand. Michael, too, was staring. One arm was folded across his middle. His hand cupped the opposite elbow, stubby fingers drummed against his cheek. Gabriel flitted his tongue across his dry lips, he felt a need to quench his thirst.
"What are we meant to do now?" asked Michael, not meeting Gabriel's eyes.
"I don't know. Wait for something?" Gabriel said.
***
The unfruitful endeavor of waiting weathered the two companions. Aware their needs were not being met but unsure of what they required to sustain themselves, they grew weak. Their energy levels dipped, their hearts raced.
"We need to look for something," croaked Gabriel. Michael nodded, no longer attempting to speak, his dry tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. They drew strength from each other and shuffled up the beach, legs crumpling just beyond the line of trees, the cool washed over their burning skin.
Collapsed on his back, Gabriel stared at the canopy. Green fronds obscured the sun. He felt at peace. Content with the world. If his life slipped from his body, he would be calm. Fear had left him, senses dulled to block out the pain. Through the haze, he heard a trickle. Unknowingly, he reacted to the sound, his body let out a burst of energy. Slithering through the leaves that coated the forest floor, he peered over a lip of rocks. Clear water sparkled below. Gasping, he cupped his hand, dipped it into the inviting cool, and raised it to his lips. Liquid life ran through his body, all pain forgotten. He dragged Michael to the edge of the brook, so he, too, could claw back from death.
***
Gabriel learned that existence was hard. His constant need for water to stave off the throbbing in his head, and foraging for food to satisfy his hunger led to continuous chores. Gabriel eyed the green plant waving gently in the breeze. Below was a moist and tender root, ready to eat. He licked his lips and readied himself to heave. The constant battle between effort and sustenance plagued him constantly. With a sharp tug, the root emerged from the dirt.
"Good, you got one," said Michael as he held out a plump-fingered hand. Reluctantly, Gabriel handed it over.
"There must be something easier," Gabriel said, hands on hips, turning his head toward the layers of shrubs that stretched into the forest. "I'm just going to take a look a bit farther in." Michael shrugged, his attention already turned to cleaning the dirt off their next meal. Once Michael had food, he could not be distracted.
Gabriel pushed his way through the delicate fronds, deeper into the forest. The mottled shards of light puncturing the trees contracted, the forest more unknown with every step. "Yes!" Gabriel cried, quickening his pace. He ran toward the glint in the green. Pushing aside a frond large enough to cover his body, he gasped. A squat plant with bulbous fruits sat behind the natural screen. He touched it, the fuzzy skin tickled his fingers. The weight of the fruit was apparent as soon as he cupped it in his hand. It seemed to glow the same color as the sky when the sun dipped past the sea. His mouth watered.
Gabriel's body jumped before he registered the noise, a large crack, a scrape through the leaves that littered the forest floor. A strange sound filled his ears, a growl. Something was coming.
His breath came fast, wild eyes drank in his surroundings. He moved without thought, crashing through the trees back to the beach. He did not want to know what he had found.
The trees lightened, he burst out of the forest. Michael's head snapped as Gabriel collapsed in the sand, trying to slow his breathing.
"What?" said Michael. Gabriel shook his head.
"Nothing, I just thought I saw something," Gabriel panted, unsure how much to say.
"Well." Michael paused. Gabriel saw a thought churning through his mind. "I found something too." Raising an eyebrow in question, Gabriel's gaze followed Michael's pointed finger. Lying on the sand, just out of the tree line, was a body. Gabriel almost mistook it for a lump in the sand. The sun glinted off the curly blond hair, just as it did off the pale ripples on the beach.
Gabriel approached with caution, his experience in the forest fresh on his senses. It was curled on its side, knees tucked in, face peaceful. Gabriel lifted his foot and pushed on the drooping shoulder. The body gave no resistance, turning slightly with the shove. Gabriel stooped to his haunches and placed both palms on the body, shaking hard, hoping for a response. It came in a labored gasp. Eyes scrunched at the pain. Waiting for the newcomer's pain to subside, Gabriel spoke when its squinted gaze found his face.
"Hello," Gabriel said. "Who are you?"
"Alpha," the body replied.
"Does your tummy hurt?" asked Gabriel, pointing to his middle. The memory of an empty stomach pushed to the front of his mind.
Alpha nodded.
"Come with me. I'll show you where to dig."
Alpha rose and silently followed Gabriel to the nearest section of plants.
"Here," Gabriel said, beckoning to the long green stems that shot from the ground. "Pull this, hard."
Alpha did as he was told, grasping the stalks with bold hands; the small muscles on his arms engaged as he heaved.
"There," said Gabriel as the orange root lifted from the ground. "Brush the dirt off and eat it. It is crunchy and hard to chew, but it will make you feel strong."
Alpha shrugged and took a bite, dirt crunching in his teeth.
Alpha bent and heaved up two more roots. Straightening, he offered one to Gabriel. Gabriel took the offered meal and eyed Alpha, thoughts forming. "Why don't you stay here and eat as many of these as you like? You will need to eat lots of food to feel better. Then when you are done, pull up as many as you can carry in your arms, and come and find me near the fire. Down there." Gabriel pointed down the beach. Alpha nodded.
Gabriel set off down the beach, keeping a quick pace. "Michael," he hissed as he approached the fire. "Michael!"
"What?" growled Michael, his head barely lifting from his reclined position in the sand.
"He is gathering some food. I just asked him to do it," Gabriel said, thoughts racing.
"You asked him to gather food? For us?" Michael asked, receiving a curt nod in reply. "This could be good."
Gabriel's face broke into a grin that betrayed his inner thoughts. They had themselves another. He would be pliable they could mold him however they wished.
***
"I found them farther in. Quite amazing, don't you think? Definitely juicier than the ones in the ground. I think they taste better. I think we should try to pick more food from the trees than from the ground. They shine like the sun," Alpha prattled as he sorted the fruits.
"Are you ever quiet?" Gabriel groaned from his nest in the sand. "Nothing but talk, talk, talk. If you spent less time talking and more time working, you could find whatever you wanted, I'm sure."
Alpha's shoulders slumped. His eyes dropped to his feet. He pressed his lips firmly together to stop any retort. The punishment was not worth it.
"I agree with Gabriel," Michael said through his current mouthful. "I want more food; every new taste makes my tongue tingle. Be good, Alpha, go and find me something else."
Alpha did not move, continuing to sort his fruit.
"Did you hear that?" Gabriel said, picking up a handful of sand. He threw it at the side of Alpha's face. Alpha shook his head, careful to keep his eyes averted. "When we tell you to do something, you do it," Gabriel shouted, pelting twigs and stones at Alpha until he ran out of range.
Head hanging in defeat, Alpha trudged toward the forest, destined to work another day for his masters. His feet instinctively stopped as he heard a rustle. His small eyes scanning the forest edge, he attempted to locate the noise. Alpha's mouth dropped open, two figures emerged from the edge of the greenery. Their eyes were wild, and their heads turned in every direction, taking in the visions of home. Alpha stood still, at once afraid and overjoyed at what this meant for him. The figures stopped.
"Hello," they said in unison. "Where are we?"
***
Lucifer's fragile nerves were immediately tested when he met the others. Gabriel and Michael's feelings toward the new arrivals were obvious from the outset, as they made their superiority clear. Long silences thickened the air. Alpha filled the gaps with his story until Lucifer gathered the courage to speak.
"So," Lucifer said, allowing the information Alpha had told him to sink in. "You all just woke up too?"
Alpha nodded.
"But what are we doing here? What are we here for? I don't understand," Lucifer muttered, casting his eyes to his new companion. He received nothing but a shrug from Raphael, whose face was still contorted with shock. His thoughts were building, words came more easily with every moment. His mind constructed a picture of his home, layering his innate knowledge with insight gathered from those who came before him.
"None of that matters," grumbled Gabriel. "All that matters is that we eat and drink, so we do not get thirsty or hungry. I don't like being asked too many questions." He finished with a sneer. "You ask Alpha how that worked out for him."
"He is right," Alpha hissed. "If you do anything to annoy them, they will punish you."
"Punish? Why? Why is he allowed to punish us…" Lucifer's questioning was cut off as Gabriel rose from his depression in the sand.
"I am in charge here. I was here first, you do as I say. Now get us more fruit. You better find something different. We are getting bored," Gabriel said, turning his back.
"Come on," said Alpha. Grabbing Lucifer and Raphael by the arms, he dragged them to the forest. "We should go."
Reluctantly, Lucifer allowed himself to be led, peering back toward Gabriel and Michael, nestled into the sand. "We will need to find some food, or they will be angry. I think there is something new over this way, it isn't too far. We have to make sure we are back before it gets dark, or we will not hear the end of it."
The edge of the forest loomed, the dark sucking them farther in with every step. Alpha bent to pluck roots from the ground as he walked.
"This is incredible," said Raphael, his mouth hanging open more with every step he took into the forest. "It feels alive, like it wants us to explore."
Lucifer smiled at Raphael, "I feel it too," he said, craning his neck to take in every layer of the forest: the crunchy leaves below his feet, the dark, soft fronds that tickled his fingertips, and the soaring trees that sprouted into a dense green canopy high above their heads. Dazzling flowers punctuated the foliage, pops of color grabbed Lucifer's attention everywhere he looked. "We need to explore," Lucifer said, a wide grin splitting his face, excitement coursing through his body, emitting a faint buzz. His eyes alight, Lucifer turned to Alpha, his forehead creased with deep lines.
"No," he said forcefully. "We can't, you don't know what will happen if we don't do as they say."
"I am not afraid of them," Lucifer replied, puffing his chest. Alpha's worried expression deepened before it relaxed with a shrug.
"Don't say I didn't warn you. I am going back." Alpha turned, slinking through the trees.
Lucifer spun back to Raphael. "What do you think, Raphael? Are you ready to explore?"
"It is what we are meant to do," Raphael said, eyes wide. "I know it."
They chose a direction and walked. Ducking through small gaps in trees, pushing aside soft green fronds, they navigated trickling streams and rested to fill their stomachs when they found new fruits.
Lucifer pushed aside a thick-stemmed branch, gasping at what he saw. A nearly sheer cliff soared above, covered with tufts of moss and grasses. Disjointed vines hung from jutting black rocks, making way for a wall of water falling from the high edge, which collected in a sparking pool. Mesmerized, Lucifer let go of the frond, which snapped back in place.
"Ouch," came a muffled voice. Lucifer spun around to see Raphael grasping his nose, eyes watering.
"Are you all right?" Lucifer said, spinning toward Raphael, half emerged from the thicket.
"I think so," he said, tenderly prodding his nose with a finger. "That hurt."
Lucifer chuckled at Raphael's expression. Raphael let a smile touch his lips and shook his head in a gesture for them to continue.
"Do you think we can get up there?" Raphael said, thinking aloud.
"I think we can," replied Lucifer. "Let's see if we can climb up using the vines."
Scrabbling for handholds, they made slow progress, the roar of rushing water was deafening. With a final heave, they reached the top and collapsed on the plateau, staring at the bright-blue sky above, breathing heavily.
"We did it," said Raphael, sitting up.
"We did," Lucifer replied, giving Raphael a firm clap on the shoulder. Fumbling to his feet, he turned slowly. Beauty overtook Lucifer's every thought, he could do nothing but stare. Below him, the forest canopy stretched into the distance, inviting, as if urging him to dive onto it and walk across the tops of the trees. He lifted his eyes and saw a jagged mountain dark against the sky, circled with cloud.
"I wonder what is up there," said Raphael absently, as if he knew what Lucifer were thinking. "This is so wonderful," he continued, raising his face and arms to the sky. Lucifer watched his nostrils flare as he took in a deep breath, twirling in a circle.
Lucifer smiled, Raphael looked happy.
Standing still, Lucifer watched Raphael skip across the plateau. He picked small plants, smelling and tasting. His energy drew Lucifer's gaze, excitement uncontainable.
"I can't describe how I feel," beamed Raphael, looking back over his shoulder. "I think something inside of me might burst." Lucifer grinned again, ambling to join Raphael near the edge of the plateau.
"I know what you mean," Lucifer said, searching Raphael's eyes.
"I just want to run around until the sun goes down. Then lie up here all night, looking at the lights in the sky." Raphael took a step and met a crumbly piece of rock. He took in a sharp breath, fear overtaking the eyes that, a moment earlier, had been alive with intrigue and joy. He reached out a hand, madly grabbing for something to hold. Lucifer lunged, just touching Raphael's fingertips before he slid over the edge. Heart beating through his skin, Lucifer ran the few steps to the edge, instincts warning him of what he might find. Raphael was in sight, clinging to a vine. He stared up at Lucifer, pleading.
"Don't move," Lucifer shouted. "I'm coming."
Unsure what to do, he looked around the plateau. He grabbed a vine hanging from the edge and tied it around his waist, leaning as far over as he could without tumbling himself. "Use your feet," he called. "Try to swing up and take my hand."
Raphael didn't move. He was frozen, clinging to the vine.
"You have to try!" Lucifer called again, desperation mounted. Raphael's fingers were white with effort, he could not hold on much longer.
"I am here. I will help you," Lucifer continued, attempting to rid his voice of panic. "I will not let anything happen to you."
Raphael took a deep breath and kicked his feet against the sheer wall of the cliff. He swung in an arc. Their fingers touched. Not enough. Raphael swung away with the momentum of the vine.
"You have to trust me!" yelled Lucifer.
Arcing back, Raphael closed his eyes and launched himself upward, losing his grip on the vine in the lunge toward his savior. Everything slowed. Lucifer did not breathe. Raphael's pale hand moved closer. Lucifer dove and grabbed the soft flesh of his forearm. A spark passed through Lucifer's body at the touch. Lucifer locked onto Raphael's wild eyes, the jolt was a mutual unknown feeling. They hung together, teetering on the edge of the cliff. With no words of encouragement left, Lucifer heaved Raphael back to the safety of the plateau.
Breathing heavily, Lucifer made his way to a crouching position. "Are you all right?" he asked Raphael, although he already felt the answer. Raphael nodded, words not yet returned. Something flickered. Lucifer snapped his head toward the movement. There was nothing there. Lucifer rose to his feet, searching. Something darted from his field of vision just before he saw it.
"What's wrong?" asked Raphael, his senses returning.
"I don't know. I thought I saw something moving," Lucifer said warily.
"We should go back." said Raphael. Lucifer nodded, still alert to the movement.
"We should tell the others," Lucifer said.
***
"I saw something out there. I'm telling you, I know there is something more!" Lucifer's frustration continued to rise as he tried to get through to his cohort back at the beach. "How can we just sit here when we know there is something to discover out there?"
"No," Gabriel said with a practiced resolve that would end any conversation. "We are happy, we have good food, we have everything we need here. I will not risk this to find what you think you saw. By the sounds of it, Raphael barely survived." Gabriel waved a hand at Raphael, who stood still, skin as pale as the clouds surrounding the mountains. "Your job is to get food for Michael to cook. He is getting quite good at it, and that is what we should work on, making things better for ourselves here. Not risking all we have done out there."
"But-" Lucifer started. Gabriel came close, his head craned down close to Lucifer's face. Through clenched teeth he said, "I am in charge here, I say no. I will not let your ideas ruin what I have built for myself."
Lucifer let his eyes fall to the ground. Alpha's warning about Gabriel played over in his head. With a final glare, Gabriel stomped across camp.
Lucifer sat heavily in the sand. "It is no use. I can't change his mind," he muttered.
"Perhaps that is not such a bad thing," said Raphael, sitting delicately next to Lucifer. "He is right, what happened out there scared me. I don't want to go far into the forest again. Who knows what might be in there?"
Lucifer gave a small smile. Despite his disappointment, he understood. Strong protective feelings toward Raphael rose to the surface in continuous waves.
"I suppose we have been told our place," said Lucifer. "If there is one good thing to come out of this, we can help Alpha. He does seem to be doing all the work."
"He is a little different though, don't you think?" asked Raphael.
"Different? Yes. But just because someone is different doesn't mean they should be treated this way," Lucifer continued.
"But I will say," said Raphael, "he can be a little difficult to be around. Always talking about things that don't matter. Perhaps that is why the others send him to do all the chores."
Lucifer heard a crack. He twisted, eyes darting. There was nothing there.
***
Alpha knelt at the forest edge, ripping up vegetables with all his force, muttering through clenched teeth as he threw them to a wayward pile. "I annoy them, do I? Well, I will make them see."




2
Life

Gabriel's eyes flickered, opening to the bright light of another perfect day. He raised his chest, bony elbows digging into the sand. He sucked a long sharp breath. The salty scent curled up his nostrils as the breeze tickled his skin. The calming murmur of the ocean and distant chirping from the forest creased a smile on his face.
The sand was his place, comfortable and warm, molding to his body as he slept. It stretched beyond his field of vision and stopped at a thin line in the distance, where it turned into sky. The shimmering air danced above the sea. Gabriel was pulled from his fresh daze of sleep by the increasing slosh of water. The ocean was on the move. The water, calm. The clear dark blue crept up and down the sand.
Before his resting place was saturated by the inevitable reach of the sea, he rolled his unwilling body, rising to his feet to escape inundation.
Gabriel liked the water. He had stood in it once, plunging his feet up to the ankles. This small exploration was never repeated after he caught sight of a shiny sliver beneath the surface. Gabriel chose to forget the incident instead of acknowledging the well of fear that rose to his throat at the sight of something unknown. It was something he could not explain, and therefore, did not want to know.
The continuous murmur of the sea moved his thoughts to water. "Thirsty," he muttered to himself.
As he stretched his long arms above his head, a yawn escaped his lips. His wits growing with each moment of awareness, Gabriel looked around. He was alone. He took his first lazy step toward the forest edge, heading for the spring. The most accessible point of the bubbling brook was resident just inside the tree line, not too far in. Imagined pictures of fresh, cool water flowing over smooth rocks punctuated his thoughts. Glistening as dappled sunlight pierced through the canopy, the picture increased his level of thirst. He stopped. A frown furrowed his brow.
"Where are you? You should be back by now. Why should I have to get it?" he said to no one as he nestled back into the sand, expecting that someone would be along soon.
Facing the forest, his stomach growled. He could see the colorful fruits piercing through the green foliage. More delectable morsels sprang from the ground at the edge of the forest.
Gabriel's mind envisaged ripping the delicious roots from the sandy soil, dusting off the earth, and taking a juicy bite without a care for the leftover pieces of grit entering his mouth.
Hungry but unwilling to move, he rolled languidly onto his taut belly, head resting on his muscular arms. Soon enough, one of the others would be here to fetch what he needed to quench his thirst and quell his cantankerous stomach.
He drifted back into the dreamy state of semi consciousness, the sun's warm tendrils reached out to his skin. His mouth twitched up to a smile, content despite his hunger. Visions of sticky yellow flesh with a crust of char danced behind his eyes. The fruit's natural sweetness enhanced by searing on a hot stone. He sensed the sugars in the air, so real that his nose twitched.
Gabriel's eyes snapped open. Sweet, tangy roasted fruit. The unseen odor reached his nostrils. The smell was unmistakable. The proximity of food was soon confirmed as a hefty shadow blocked his sun.
Eager, he flipped up to a sitting position, narrowly avoiding the chunky thigh that still wobbled from recent movement.
Gabriel smiled, his eyes wandering up the length of Michael's substantial body, resting on the rosy-cheeked face. Food was here.
"Lunch?" Michael asked, cocking one bushy blond eyebrow, his small mouth upturned on the opposite side. The glint in his eye was always present when food was near.
"Of course, knowing you cooked it." Showing his perfect set of bright teeth, Gabriel slapped Michael on the thigh.
Michael reached out a hand, a laden leaf plastered over his meaty fingers. Relieved of the food, his frame sank into the sand.
A stew of fresh and charred fruits foraged from the forest, brought together in a sauce of crushed berries. Gabriel drank in the aroma of Michael's signature dish. The bright and enticing fruit made Gabriel's mouth water, vibrant yellows and oranges with flecks of gold that caught the sun punctured through the deep red sauce.
Gabriel shoveled food to his mouth, pinching chunks with the tips of his fingers. The tart and sweet tastes of the forest tingled his tongue. Bliss.
Gabriel's brow furrowed. His fervent chewing slackened to a slow munch as his underworked senses attempted to identify a foreign flavor. He poked around the remaining pile of food to pick out the intruder. The culprit, small, brown, and spongy, was closely examined between thumb and forefinger.
"A mushroom," Michael slurred through chomping teeth. "It comes up from the ground near the base of trees. The others found it yesterday."
Gabriel popped the morsel into his mouth. Trying new foods was the closest he got to adventure. An adventure short-lived, as the half-chewed food flew out of his mouth, thudding into the sand.
Michael roared, a solid finger pointing at Gabriel's face. "Your face!" Michael managed between wheezes. "You look like you ate your own nose!"
Emerging from the shock of the disagreeable taste in his mouth, Gabriel let a smile dance on his lips, as he punched Michael on the arm.
"That," Gabriel said, flipping his hand toward the discarded brown lump, "was not good."
"I like it." Michael rushed his words before a fresh handful filled his mouth.
"Doesn't count," said Gabriel. "You like everything."
Laughter overtook them, Michael's body heaving, trying not spit his food. Gabriel's flecked eyes twinkled in the sunlight as he went back to his meal, picking around the mushrooms.
"I love your cooking, Mikey, despite the mushroom," Gabriel said, hoping to distract Michael from any offense. "It is still beyond me why you bother though, you could get one of the snivelers to do it."
Michael shrugged, a wave of wobbles crossed his body "I like doing the food. And besides, I don't trust those three, and if there is one thing that needs to be done properly around here, it's the food."
Gabriel stifled a laugh, his mind piecing together the next witty thing to say that walked the perfect line between insult and praise.
Before he could build the next piece of banter, a rustle reached his ears, and silhouettes appeared in the distance, dragging palm frond sleighs toward camp. Seeing the return of the others, a scornful noise escaped from deep in Gabriel's throat before he turned back to his food.
***
Raphael dragged the heavy bounty across the sand. The large bonfire roared. Hot coals raked to the outer edge, smooth stones heating on the bed of whitening embers. His nose twitched, Michael had been cooking. Knowing there would be no food awaiting them, he pushed the thought from his mind. There were many more chores to do before he ate the leftovers.
Raphael fixed his eyes to the fire, the dominant feature and the focus of life. The never-ending blaze was the constant force in a consistent world. It never faded, burning brightly from the first day of his memory. Drawn to the flames, he staggered close, heat radiated through his skin.
He wiped the dripping sweat from his brow, digging deep to gather the last drops of available energy. Dragging the large pile one more pace, he collapsed in the sand.
Knees drawn up, his chin on folded arms, Raphael saw the outlines of Gabriel and Michael through the shimmering air. They did not try to move.
"So hot today," Raphael said aloud, wiping his brow for a second time.
"It's always hot," came a soft voice, the whisper of an echo reaching his ear. Raphael's face broke into a broad grin. A current ran through his body, leaping out of his skin as if trying to reach for the voice behind him.
"I suppose you are right," Raphael said as he spun, the corners of his mouth twitching up at the sight of long dark hair rustling in the breeze. The delicate strands flitted across Lucifer's high forehead, brushing the long sharp nose and full pink lips. Jet black hair and alabaster skin, a striking juxtaposition of light and dark, pierced by a pair of intense bright-green eyes.
"You caught up quickly," Raphael said, groaning inwardly, regretting the stupid statement. Heart pounding in his chest, he attempted a more meaningful question. "Did you find anything after I headed back?"
Lucifer's shoulders dropped. A sigh escaped his plump lips, and a hand reached the top of his head, running through the long strands of glossy black hair. A movement Raphael knew well, an anxious impulse that escaped in times of disappointment.
"No," said Lucifer, eyes flicking down before returning Raphael's solid gaze. "I would like to go farther in, there has to be more in the forest. I can hear things in there. I just haven't seen them yet."
"You will," said Raphael, wanting badly to help fulfill Lucifer's growing need to explore. He reached out a hand, giving Lucifer's shoulder a gentle squeeze. The gesture was returned with a small smile that did not light his eyes, which remained steeped with frustration.
Raphael felt a small jump beneath his hand. Lucifer's fine senses tweaked. He spun, and Raphael peered over his shoulder.
A squat figure made its way down the sand, shoulders heavy, head down. Sun glinted off the curly blond hair. A frond, half piled with fruits, dragged slowly.
"Alpha's caught up," said Lucifer, drooping, his disappointment multiplied with Alpha's impending arrival.
Raphael watched Alpha jerk the frond down the beach, his small strides adding to the entertainment as he vented his frustration by violently tugging the leaf.
Giving up, Alpha abandoned his contribution and trundled to the fire's edge, collapsing with a spectacular groan.
"I cannot do this any longer," sighed Alpha, burying his face in his arms.
Simultaneously seeking eye contact and raising their eyebrows, Raphael and Lucifer stifled their giggles, unable to contain their amusement at Alpha's continuous aversion to work.
Ribs heaving with suppressed laughter, Raphael grasped his sides. He was unable to hold it, the laughter escaped, ribs protesting with every movement. Slowly regaining the ability to breathe, he saw Alpha. Black eyes glowered with an anger that escaped the confines of his body, traveling through the air, pounding him in the stomach.
Raphael cleared his throat, avoiding Alpha's gaze. Searching for a way to remove himself from the awkward moment, he was saved by a demand from across the fire.
"Hey! About time!" called Michael. "Have you brought me anything new?"
"Not today," Lucifer yelled across the fire. "Not today," he repeated to himself.
***
He knew it. There was something in the forest. He had felt them, seen them from the corner of his eye. The hairs prickled on the back of his neck, telling him something was near. The forest felt alive, there had to be more. Long ago, Lucifer vowed to himself to find the origins of the strange sounds he heard in the night. He would, one day, get answers.
He snapped to attention at the sound of wheezing, the sticky slapping of skin grew closer as Michael lumbered toward him, his fist shaking. Unintelligible grunts escaped his mouth. Lucifer made out the words "new" and "too long," enough to get the point. He opened his mouth to protest, he had delivered the mushroom only yesterday. Seeing Michael red in the face, spittle flying, Lucifer knew what was coming. He changed his mind. Instead of protesting, he ran.
Lucifer jumped up, zigzagging in a backward trot. Not as tall, but half the size and twice as fit; he had no trouble outrunning the lumbering figure. Agile and nimble, Lucifer darted, changing direction quickly. He forced Michael to concentrate on his footing.
Michael was fully breathless, his face adopting a red hue reminiscent of his favorite food. Laughter sprang up from deep in Lucifer's belly, the image of Michael's fat head turning into a tomato and the small appearance change that would result from such a transformation stuck in his head. Unable to stop it and seeing no harm in aggravating Michael further, he let the laughter bubble into the world.
Michael scowled and lunged toward Lucifer. Lucifer darted, barely escaping. Continuing his laughter, mocking and teasing, he picked up speed, trotting farther from Michael with every step.
Busy toying with Michael, losing track of his surroundings, Lucifer caught a double-handed wave from Raphael up the beach. His brow furrowed. What was he doing? Before the thought fully formed and his body could react, he lost his footing and crashed backward into the rippling blue sea. He dug his toes into the wet sand and raised his head above the water. With lank dark hair stuck in his eyes, he raised an arm to wave to his companions, signaling his welfare. He felt the water pull him, toes losing their grip on the sea floor. Stepping back, he scrambled for a new foothold. The world he knew disappeared as he sank over the edge of an unseen precipice.
***
Floating in a weightless prison, surrounded by dark, thin shafts of light pierced from above. Water crowded his ears, restricting his world to nothing but the rapid beat of his own heart. His mind told him something was wrong, this strange environment was not for him.
He felt a pressure in his chest, his throat clenched tightly, lungs screaming for air. The voice in his head urged him to kick to the surface. His senses told him this would be the end. An inbuilt understanding of basic needs forced his body to react. He clawed at the water, desperation willing him to rise. The water slipped through his fingers, he was stuck in the void.
It was useless. There was no air. He would soon leave his life behind. He would know death and ending. Acceptance soothed him. He gave in to the pull of the ocean. The last bubbles escaped his nose, his body ready for its final breath.
There was a flicker of silver, a solitary glint in the darkness. Scales flashed in the remnants of sunlight, the large-eyed creatures swam through the water, unafraid. He brushed one with his hand.
This was it, what he had been searching for. He had to survive, he had to find the answers. Kicking with the strength that only comes to one about to die, he broke the surface, water sluicing down his face. His first breath came too soon. He coughed, panting and squinting in the brightness of the sun.
Struggling toward the shore, movements anything but graceful, he found his footing a short distance from the group huddled by the edge of the water. Lucifer stood, lifting himself from the water that nearly claimed him, the ordeal evident with every movement. Senses returning, he heard the slosh of the small waves, felt the ripple around his legs and the pull of the sand at his feet. As he was about to collapse, something wriggled against his dripping leg. His hand was separate, distant, it did not belong to him. The creature from the deep wrestled in his grip. With no memory of clutching the creature, his jaw slackened. He raised his eyes to the group and was met with four identical expressions.
Willing his body to move, Lucifer waded to the shore, soon realizing the creature was not the first thing on everyone's mind. He was taken into Raphael's warm but ferocious embrace.
"Don't you ever do that again." Raphael's irritated voice was breaking, holding back tears. "I thought you were gone."
Lucifer gave him a half smile and a reassuring pat on the shoulder before dropping the creature and trudging back to camp.




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