As Beth woke, she realized immediately by the feel of the bed beneath her that she was in an unfamiliar place. Sitting up, she looked around, taking a quick survey of her surroundings. The room was more or less empty of anything besides furniture and decor, marking it as seldom used probably a guest bedroom of some sort. Heavy curtains covered the single window, but daylight leaked in around the edges of the brocade.
Brighter than that trickle of sunlight were the magical auras of two angels, her own Kezayed and the powerful stranger who had called her away from her dream. Of course, she couldn't actually see them, but she could certainly feel their presence. "Kezayed?" she murmured, wanting to hear the reassuring sound of his voice.
"I'm here, love," he said quickly, apparently standing near the head of the bed, at her left side. "Are you all right? How do you feel?"
"Fine, just a little groggy," Beth replied, raising a hand to her cheek. Was this where the sorcerer had touched her...? "I was dreaming."
"Were you? I could only see that your mind was far away," the stranger said. His voice was a polished, urbane baritone that was immediately recognizable. Without waiting for her to answer, he continued, "I am Luciel, of the Fourth Choir by your reckoning. You're in the home of my protégé Devin Mercure, where you're quite welcome to stay for a while. Be assured, you're very safe from demons here."
He spoke with such matter-of-factness that Beth simply had to believe him. She nodded her understanding. "My thanks, then, Master Luciel, and thanks to your student, as well," she said softly.
Before Luciel could reply, the door to the small bedroom opened, and Beth got an impression of a narrow, handsome almost pretty face that, despite being crowned with fashionably unkempt blonde hair, was frighteningly familiar. She couldn't restrain a little cry of alarm as she sat up in the bed, scooting into the corner farthest from the door.
The blonde man gave her a slightly puzzled look. "Elizabeth, aren't you? Didn't mean to surprise you. I'm Devin." He turned and seemed to address the air next to him. "The wards are up, heh."
"Ah, good," Luciel's voice replied. "Elizabeth, don't be afraid of Devin, child, his bark is worse than his bite." The grin was audible in his tone.
She looked at Devin carefully. No, at second glance, he didn't resemble Parhelion quite as much as she had thought, but despite the look of annoyance he wore at the moment, there was a marked similarity in the structure of the two men's faces, enough to startle her in her sleep-muzzy state.
"Sorry," she apologized, embarrassed now at her outburst. "I had been dreaming, and... you sort of look like someone in the dream." She relaxed and came forward, sitting on the edge of the bed.
"I see," the man replied with a raised eyebrow. Beth realized that the seemingly permanent scowl on his face made him look older than he really was; he couldn't have been more than a few years older than herself. He certainly didn't have the same strange quality of agelessness that had marked Parhelion. Indeed, Devin looked rather hard-bitten for someone so young.
"Thank you, Mr. Mercure," she said finally, shaking off her reverie. "It's very kind of you to let me stay here."
He looked somewhat uncomfortable with her thanks. "Just call me Devin," he murmured, running a hand through his hair in a gesture of nervousness. "And it's nothing. I know..." he trailed off for a moment, and his gazed seemed to turn inward before he continued, "I know what it is to be hunted by demons, and if I can protect someone from that, I will."
Beth wasn't sure what to say to that; she just nodded slightly and turned her gaze from Devin to glance around the room for a moment. Even with a more thorough looking-over, there was little there to tell her what sort of mage she was dealing with, or why he might be familiar with fending off demons. They were a threat to many mages, but he spoke of being hunted, and of wards, and Luciel mentioned being safe in this house...
Finally, curiosity and worry pushed her to ask. "I don't mean to pry, but do you... have a lot of problems with demons?"
Devin snorted mirthlessly. "That's a fair question. Wondering if you've just jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire, huh?"
Beth nodded cautiously to the man, but it was Luciel who gave her an answer. "It's more that the demons have problems with him," the angel said, a note of wry humor in his warm voice. "He's something of a Finder, among other things."
"Oh." That explained a good deal. A "Finder" was a mage who specialized in retrieving magical artifacts for others often from demons who had stolen them from their rightful owners. It wasn't hard to imagine that lower-level demons, the sorts who were usually tasked with fetching those artifacts, might find Devin troublesome, particularly since he had an anti-demon specialist as a partner. "I guess working with a Power would be a real advantage there, wouldn't it?" she mused out loud.
"Usually," Devin said with a half-smirk, earning an audible snort of amusement from Luciel. "And since Luce has been with me for years, our working relationship, so to speak, is pretty tight." He regarded Beth curiously. "But what about you, with an archangel as a partner? What sort of work are you doing?"
The girl hesitated before answering; she always felt a little silly in the presence of masters of more... practical arts. "I use musical magic," she said shyly. "Kezayed doesn't actually have much to do with it."
"Oh, yeah?" Devin turned to look at Kezayed (or so Beth assumed) with an inquisitive look. Beth wondered if she heard a challenge in the man's tone, but Kezayed answered before she could.
"Quite simply, asaiah, I've always enjoyed music." His tone conveyed his smile. "I'm teaching her, as well as simply protecting her, you see."
Devin's expression was undecipherable for a moment, and then he smiled briefly. "Ah angelic teaching is a real privilege, isn't it?" he said as he turned back to Beth.
"Definitely," the girl agreed. "Kezayed's been able to teach me things that it would have taken me years to find out about, let alone learn."
"Indeed, asaiah, I've been studying music myself for centuries now, and it's nice to find someone to pass these things on to," Kezayed chimed in.
By this point, Beth was very curious as to why her guardian kept addressing Devin with such respect asaiah was a lofty term that angels reserved for mortals who had accomplished great deeds, and angels, in general, had rather high standards for "great deeds." Now seemed as a good a time to ask as any, before the conversation got too entangled in her affairs. "Devin, umm..."
"...Yes?" he prodded as she tried to phrase her question.
"Why does Kezayed address you as 'asaiah'?" she finally blurted. "Is there something you've done...?"
There was a muffled laugh that sounded like it had come from Luciel. Devin scowled slightly and shook his head in irritation. "Honestly, I'm not sure I've earned it," he snorted, "though these two seem to think so."
"Are you familiar with the demon clans and their hierarchies?" Luciel asked her.
"Only a little. After these attacks started, I've tried to learn more, but..."
"Ah, of course," the angel said, his tone sympathetic. "Well, not too long ago, Devin defeated the Thane of Naga and banished him from the Physical Plane."
Beth's eyes widened in honest surprise. From what she knew, the Naga were one of the strongest of the demon clans, but their activity in the Physical Plane had seemingly declined lately. Now she knew why. "I think that rightly deserves some respect," she said, looking at Devin with a new sense of awe. "But... what business did you have with the ul-Naga himself?" The sort of petty theft that most Finders had to deal with were left to lower-ranking demons.
The man's expression went flinty for a moment. "It was rather personal, between Sikhander ul-Naga and I from before he became the Thane," he said curtly.
"I see," Beth murmured, feeling chastened. She was now more than a little curious, but she didn't want to pry (and she certainly had no right to), so she let the matter drop.
There was a long moment of awkward silence before Devin suddenly lurched, as if he'd been shoved slightly. He shot an irritated glare up at the empty space next to him before looking sheepishly at Beth. "Um, sorry, not used to having guests. Can I get you anything?"
She couldn't help but smile as the formidable, demon-banishing Finder was suddenly reduced to an awkward twenty-something again. "I guess I'm sort of hungry, now that you mention it..."
As Beth sat at the large island in the kitchen, eating a light brunch, Devin warned her that he'd asked a "friend" to come talk with them about how best to protect her apartment.
"He's... a little startling," the man said vaguely, apparently not wanting to get into specifics, "but he's a really old friend of Luciel's, and he knows his shit, so it seems like it'd be useful to bring him on board."
Beth nodded a little uncertainly. "Is he an angel, then?"
"...Sort of?" was Devin's unhelpful response. "You'll see, I guess."
Even with that warning in mind, she wasn't prepared for the peculiar aura that entered the house a short time later. It was angelic... sort of. There was something entwined with the notes she usually thought of as the typical angelic signature, though, something old and secretive and... scaly? It made her think of a dragon, but what could an angel have to do with a dragon? Was he some very strange kind of angel, or something else altogether?
The unfamiliar spirit came nearer, and next to her, Kezayed's aura turned hostile, all hard steel with sharp edges. "Demon," he growled, moving in front of Beth, "how have you entered this place?"
"I was invited, Archangel Kezayed," a quiet voice replied. It was a difficult voice to pin down as male or female, and reminded Beth somewhat of the deep toll of a church bell not metallic, but a low, sweet sound that was felt as much as heard.
"You cannot be"
"Ah, Zahariel," Luciel's voice interrupted the archangel, "thank you for coming." As attuned to sound as Beth was, the calm that Luciel projected with his voice alone was almost tangible to her, like a blanket. No doubt it was mostly for her and her guardian's sake, since the stranger seemed unperturbed.
"As if I would not, ahir?" The not-angel's tone was lightened with a touch of humor, but it was deeply respectful all the same.
"You don't have to listen to him all the time, y'know," Devin noted as he walked into the room, carrying what appeared to be a pad of graphing paper. "I certainly don't." Smirking slightly, the man sat on the bar stool next to Beth. "This is Zahariel," he said, waving in the direction of the stranger's voice. "He's sort of an expert on anti-demon countermeasures"
"Because he is a demon?" Kezayed asked pointedly. Beth winced at his icy tone.
"He is an Ascendant." Luciel's voice was stern, reproving. "And has been for two millennia. He means no harm to you or to your protégé, Kezayed."
The archangel was silent for a moment. "I apologize," he finally said grudgingly. "We are, of course, grateful for any assistance."
"And I will be glad to help," Zahariel replied graciously. He didn't sound particularly offended; Beth wondered if he got that sort of reception often. I suppose even angels can be prejudiced, in their own way, she mused. It was an unhappy thought.
With ruffled feathers sufficiently smoothed, the five of them buckled down to the task at hand. Luciel and Zahariel, with occasional inputs from Devin, asked her and Kezayed about her home and the sorts of artifacts she kept there, her daily habits, her magic use, and a myriad of other little things; soon, a set of convoluted diagrams were in progress, with the spirits debating the triggers of alarms and traps while Devin wrote annotations in his surprisingly neat handwriting.
In a couple of hours, they seemed to have reached an "optimal solution", as Luciel called it, and Devin carefully folded up the unused diagrams so that they wouldn't be mixed in with the final drafts. After it was decided that Beth should stay here one more night and that they'd start on the protection spells at her apartment early the next morning, she and Kezayed were left to their own devices while Luciel and Zahariel hammered out some of the finer details of the casting. Feeling the need to do something completely and utterly normal and mundane, Beth decided to go out and maybe shop a little bit.
"Are you sure you want to be out and about?" Kezayed asked in concern when she told him.
"It's not as if demons are going to attack me in broad daylight in a crowded place," she said with a smile, although she was surprised at his objection, mild as it was. "If nothing else, maybe I can get a gift for Devin or something, he's been very kind to let me stay here."
Something seemed to flicker in the archangel's aura, but she could deduce nothing in particular from the tone of his reply. "I suppose that would be a nice gesture, yes."
Wondering at Kezayed's odd mood, Beth left a brief note for her host before leaving the townhouse.
"I can see why you asked me to come," Zahariel said gravely to Devin later, as they quietly conferred with Luciel in Devin's office.
"Heh, yeah. It isn't like Luce couldn't handle these sorts of wards by himself," the mage replied, gesturing towards the sheaf of freshly drawn spell schematics. "So I wasn't just imagining things?"
The demon shook his head slowly, the tiny chains of silver and crystal that adorned his pale hair swinging with the motion. "He is already in a dangerous state, and I'm not sure she can be convinced of it yet, not by our word alone. It would be difficult, too, to speak with her about it without him being there obviously, he is loath to leave her."
"So." Devin glanced up at Luciel, who looked unusually grim, before continuing. "He's on the verge of Falling for Elizabeth?"
"No, Devin." Zahariel's red eyes met his, a mournful expression on the Ascendant's face. "The Fall or the Ascent is not a sudden transformation. It is a process, one that is nearly impossible to stop or reverse. There's no telling when or how exactly it was triggered, but Kezayed's Fall has clearly already begun."