Chapter 1: A Rat in Shadow
Whereby they lie in wait to deceive
-- Ephesians 4:12
Mariel was an angel, not that she fit the stereotype. It is true that her robes were white, and a large pair of white-feathered wings sprouted from her shoulders. But she didn't play the harp or dole out solace. In the place of a musical instrument, Mariel wore a sharp-edged sword at her belt, for she was nothing less than a warrior. A warrior of God.
She was a beautiful warrior, an angelic Joan of Arc without armor. Her hair was like an autumn cascade, falling down between her alabaster wings in an unruly deluge of crimson and gold. Only her intent green eyes betrayed her sober purpose, constantly searching this way and that, always scanning for the perfidious darkness that never ceased to threaten the immortal soul in her charge.
Mariel could not feel the darkness now, but always she knew it was nearby, lurking, waiting. Sometimes it took the form of an enemy she knew well, the cunning Temptress who haunted Christopher's fevered dreams, taunting the poor child with desires he barely knew he had. At other times, times like these, the darkness faded into the background, as if to lull her by its seeming absence. "I don't think so," she whispered savagely at the deepening night outside the window. "I know you're out there!"
Her lovely face was stern as she turned away from the window, but it softened as she caught sight of Christopher. At last, the boy had finally set to work on his school paper, though only after a long afternoon of procrastination. It amazed Mariel how easily humans could be distracted, especially the young ones.
She sighed as he pushed away from his computer and started to rise to his feet.
"No, you don't need to go to the bathroom again," she told him firmly. "You just went ten minutes ago."
Though he couldn't consciously hear her, Christopher hesitated. He didn't really have to go now, he realized. But he could use some sort of break. A game break would be all right. Maybe if he just played one quarter of "NCAA Football"...
"You've already played two games today. You told your teacher you would turn in your paper tomorrow, and you must keep your word to her. If you have time when you are finished, you may play a game then."
Christopher scratched his head and frowned. If he got cracking now, he'd probably have time to fit in a game before Mom and Dad got home. Maybe even two. That could be his reward to himself for finishing, two games played guilt-free.
Mariel smiled as she watched the boy return to his computer and begin hesitantly typing again. The paper was more than half finished, so she felt this particular battle was well in hand. Another thirty minutes, and Christopher would be free to run downstairs to the PlayStation and play his new football game. Thank God she'd been able to convince Mrs. Lewis that "Bloody Fist of Death" was really not an appropriate game for a teenager. Or anyone, for that matter.
It grieved her deeply to know Christopher was a nonbeliever, but she found it hard to judge the boy too harshly. His mother's faith was weak. She no longer even tried to speak to the boy about spiritual matters or encourage him to attend church. And Mr. Lewis was a skeptical man who had rejected God's mercy many years ago. It was natural for a son to follow his parents' example. When Mariel thought about the evil influences that surrounded her charge -- on the television, in his games, at his school, and in his home -- she felt glad that his heart had not completely hardened toward God. At least not yet. As long as life remained, there was always hope, she reminded herself.
But as Mariel, pleased with Christopher's victory over the allure of the video game, started to relax, an aura of wrongness seized her attention like a foul smell, and she found her eyes turning back toward the window on the west side of the room. She felt as if an icy shadow were falling over the house, though it was more than an hour since the sun had descended below the horizon. "You just keep working, now." She shook her finger at the rapidly typing boy, then she ran out of the room, looking for the two other Guardians of the Lewis family.
"Paulus, Aliel, there's something outside," she exclaimed as she burst into the family room where Christopher's sisters were watching the television. "I think...I think perhaps it's watching Christopher!"
Paulus, the big Guardian who watched over Jami, the older of the twins, was already returning to its scabbard the long blade he'd drawn upon hearing Mariel running down the stairs. But when he heard her words, he stopped as an expression of concern filled his Romanesque face.
"Outside, you say?"
"I didn't feel anything," said Aliel, Holli's slender Guardian. She was more delicate than Mariel, and usually more sensitive, too.
The three angels fell silent and listened, but even their supernatural senses could detect no obvious danger. Mariel felt the usual petty spirits wandering about, but they were nothing out of the ordinary. When she admitted that she could not feel the cold eye of darkness now, Aliel looked as if she was about to tease her, but Paulus raised an inquisitive eyebrow as he listened to her describe the uneasy sensation and urged her to go outside and look around. He and Aliel would watch the house, he assured her solemnly, while she sought for signs of lurking evil.
The evening sky was clouded, white and soft with the blanketing of quietly falling snow. It was not so much a storm as a gentle enshrouding of the earth. Large fluffy flakes settled gently on the winter-bare tree branches. Mariel curled her wings about herself; although the cold of the physical world could not affect her, the eerie silence of this frigid night made her shiver all the same. It reminded her, somehow, of the cruel bitterness of the grave that had claimed so many of her charges. She was glad that Borael Magnus, that dark King of the North, refrained from loosing his icy breath, as the soft white mounds outside the warmly lighted windows of the Lewis house grew silently higher.
Mariel frowned as she surveyed the suburban neighborhood. She was still on guard, though she saw no apparent signs of danger in the thick December clouds. The nearby forest was still, quiet as only a Minnesota forest in winter can be quiet, and she saw no peril lurking in the shadows of the evergreens. She dared a quick look back through the walls of the house and was pleased to see that Christopher was still hard at work.
"Heavenly Father, show me what I'm looking for," she prayed with her eyes open. "And give me the strength to face it, Lord."
A motion caught the corner of her eye, and Mariel wheeled around, dropping one hand to the hilt of the sword belted at her side. Then she laughed, a sound like the delicate ringing of bells, because she could not believe that the little intruder that stood before her might be the shadowy watcher whose ominous presence had called her out into the night.
"Harm me not, beautiful Guardian," the imp said, bowing so low that his ugly face nearly scraped against the snow. "I mean you no harm."
"Nor would it mean anything if you did, little wretch. Neither you nor your masters would dare to lift a hand against me. I am here by right."
"And far be it from me to question it, Lady."
Mariel relaxed somewhat and crossed her arms. She wrinkled her nose as an odor of rotten eggs wafted toward her, and a look of distaste flashed across her pretty face. The cursed spirit smelled even worse than he looked.
"Name yourself. And tell me, why are you here?"
"I am the Shadowrat," the long-nosed imp replied obediently. "I was just out and about, looking for something to spice up a boring winter's eve."
Mariel shook her head. She assumed the little imp was lying, on sheer principle if nothing else, but it was remotely possible that it spoke the truth. There were thousands of its kind scattered about the city and its surrounding suburbs, nasty, troublesome little spirits without responsibilities or any serious capacity for evil. They often spent their nights wandering aimlessly, looking to stir up any kind of trouble that might entertain their loathsome minds.
"Well, Shadowrat, you are not wanted here. Get thee hence."
The imp's face could never have been pleasant to look at, but the wide leer that appeared upon it in defiant response to her command was unexpected, and Mariel was momentarily unsettled. How dare it look at her so! Angered, and not wishing to suffer the ugly thing's presence one moment longer than she must, she drew her sword and took a threatening step toward the imp. Her weapon, a marvelous instrument of righteous retribution, burst into flames as soon as it was drawn from its scabbard.
The imp cringed before the burning flames and gibbered with fear. Clearly, it had not expected so drastic a reaction, but Mariel was feeling jumpy tonight.
"Begone, ill spirit," she commanded, pointing the fiery blade at its throat.
But even as she spoke, she realized she had made a careless mistake. She was too close! The imp's arms lengthened as it reached out for her, and before she could react, her sword arm was seized in an iron grip. She tried to pull away, but the Shadowrat was strong, impossibly strong, and she could not break free. She kicked at it, but it twisted away from her, turning her arm painfully sideways and forcing her to relinquish her grasp on the sword.
"Let me go!" she shouted, but the demon held her fast.
The flames surrounding the blade hissed as they were quenched in the snow, and Mariel fell backward as the Shadowrat threw her violently to the ground. Now it was her turn to cringe as the small, contorted form of the imp stretched and grew, until before her stood a mighty lord of angels, with cruel yellow eyes set on either side of a thin, hawklike nose. She knew him and was afraid, not for herself but for Christopher and his sisters.
"Bloodwinter," she gasped.
"Prince Bloodwinter," he corrected her in a haughty voice. The Prince was of the regal order of Principalities, and he ruled the whole of the two cities that made up the greater metropolis. Millions of souls lived under his authority. He was not a merciful ruler.
"Would you command me, then, little angel?"
"I am here by right!" Mariel defied him. "My charge is here, and you may not take me from this place. Satan himself would not dare, lest he violate his accursed charter!"
To her surprise, the prideful Prince was not angered by her words but appeared to be amused instead. A hint of a smile flickered on his arrogant face, and then he gestured toward the woods.
"Lord Satan would dare far more than you think, pretty one. Come, my children."
Out of the evergreens came a myriad of spirits, of many shapes and sizes, all of them evil. There were Tempters and Fears, Imps and Incubi. There were Dream Riders and Nightmares, Specters and Never-oughts. Scattered amidst the giant armored forms of Viles were the slender shapes of Succubi, who jealously eyed the pristine loveliness of the angel despite their own illicit allure. Fat little Greeds chattered excitedly among themselves as a loathsome triad of Lusts leered hungrily at Mariel, clearly hoping their demonic Prince would make a gift of her to them.
"I should have known. The woods were silent, and the animals were afraid. I sensed a presence, but I did not understand."
Prince Bloodwinter was magnanimous in victory.
"It was not your fault. You could not have known. And your perception does you credit, for there are forces here tonight that are far beyond your ken, my dear Guardian."
"What do you mean?"
"You'll understand soon." He snapped his fingers and issued a command to the teeming spirits. "Meergrae, Dholha, bind her now."
Mariel opened her mouth to cry for help, hoping at least to alert Paulus and Aliel, but a gesture by Prince Bloodwinter bound her voice, and no sound came forth, though her whole body felt seared by the violence of the scream in her mind.
Two Succubi knelt obediently on either side of her and forced her roughly to her knees, turning her around so she found herself facing the Lewis house. A demoness unwound a pair of thick silver chains that were wrapped around her hips and passed one to her companion, then slipped a pair of iron bracelets off her slender wrists. Two stakes were driven into the ground, and Mariel found herself bound, her wrists encircled by iron and attached to the stakes by the silver chains.
"Do you think these will hold me?" she challenged Prince Bloodwinter as he walked around her.
"Oh, I think they will," he said, then he spoke three words in a language that was old long before Adam walked the Earth.
Fire erupted from within the metal, revealing its hidden nature. Mariel threw all her strength against the chains that bound her, but she could not snap them, nor could she tear the stakes from the ground. The magical fire burned, but far worse than the flames was the agony she felt at being helpless to protect Christopher from this deadly horde. She did not understand how the fallen Prince of the Cities had come to take a personal interest in her charge, but she knew nothing good could come of it.
"I hope you will note that I have not violated your sacred right," Prince Bloodwinter said mockingly as he made her a sarcastic but elegant bow. "Here you are, and here you shall remain."
A look of anger flashed momentarily across the Prince's haughty face, but he quickly mastered himself before he spoke.
"It is not for me to say."
Mariel was surprised by his words and shocked into speechlessness when the powerful Prince abruptly turned around, sank to his knees beside her, and humbly bowed his head. His minions made haste to follow suit, though Mariel could not see why.
Then an icy wind began to blow, a harsh wind from the east, ruffling the white feathers in her wings and swirling her golden hair before her eyes. It was a bad wind, full of pride and power. Despite the moonless, starless sky, it seemed as if the evil she'd sensed earlier was crashing down upon her, and with a horrified start she realized that inside the wind was her dark watcher, who was watching no longer.
She threw her face back, looking skyward, and saw a sight beyond even her deepest fears. Her heart sank into despair as a glorious shadow soared over her on wings of dark perfection. She did not recognize it, but its regal aura of awesome power was unmistakable, and tears coursed down her face as she understood where it was headed.
"No!" she cried. "No, no, no!"
Behind her, the assembled demons began to laugh, hooting and howling and cackling with glee, jeering at the angelic tears now falling freely to the snow. Only Prince Bloodwinter was silent, still on his knees, glaring furiously at the Lewis house and at the window where the shadow had disappeared.
Copyright © 2000 by Theodore Beale
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.