Hey guys, here's the first part of the first chapter of a novel I'm not quite sure about yet. I'm in desperate need of feedback for this idea, because I'm not sure if I'm any good at writing parallel world stuff and creating new universes. Reviews would be greatly appreciated, but please try to be constructive with your criticism, because I'm a bit of a defeatist and I don't want to give up on this idea just yet.
I highly recommend that you read the prologue before this, because otherwise it'll probably make very little sense.
‘Will is not born, it is not a right, and it is not, under any circumstances, free.’
- The Book of Command, p.3
Wake-ups are important. They give you a nice little insight as to how the day ahead will turn out. Breakfast in bed is promising. Stirring at ten o’clock is too.
Waking at half-five and hitting your head on the bedside table isn’t.
“Get up!” my mother snaps, whipping back my duvet, making me wince.
The cold is impenetrable, wrapping itself around my body like some kind of clingy girlfriend, and I make a mental note to stop wearing skimpy vests and shorts to bed. It does nothing for my head either, which is thumping with so much pain that it pulses through my body like a secondary heartbeat. Clearly, this doesn’t bother my mother, because she leaves the room as quickly as she entered it, without so much as a ‘sorry for causing you potential brain damage’ as she goes.
As the pain gradually begins to ebb and the room stops swinging, I ease myself upright, palming the sleep from my eyes. Half five. Half five in the damn morning, and my mother’s already roping me into the preparation.
Today is Xalvadora, the most popular annual holiday in our calendar. It’s the day in which whole neighbourhoods – whole towns – gather together to celebrate the anniversary of our Earth’s cleansing, and everybody looks forward to it all year round. It dominates the television, the conversation, and every single household – particularly mine – for months before it even takes place.
And it just so happens to be my least favourite day of the year.
I force my eyes open only to be greeted by the sight of my new outfit, hanging stiffly from my ugly wardrobe. I stifle a groan. At least it’s better than last year’s, though that’s not hard.
White is traditional; it represents cleanliness, purity and beauty, the very essence of Xalvadora, but the beauty stretches no further than that. The outfit is one part wedding dress, two parts curtain, and composed of three separate garments. The main part is a long, shapeless dress somewhat reminiscent of a blanket, completely devoid of any decoration or embellishment, accompanied by a drifty, translucent veil that covers almost every inch of my hair. On their own, albeit bland, they’d combine to make one of my better Xalvadora getups, but my mother seems to have determinedly set out to strip the outfit of what little it has going for it, and has purchased a massive, bib-stroke-poncho thing to accompany it. It drapes down over my chest and robs me of whatever definition I had managed to retain beneath that sweeping dress, and, as I stare gloomily at myself in the mirror, I realise that this was probably my mother’s objective. She doesn’t like it that I’m finally developing a chest (even though I’m sixteen, so it’s about time) and goes to great effort to hide it for me, like she thinks the angels will take one look at my measly bust and arrest me or something.
So here I am. Dressed up like a plastic bag.
Still, last year was even worse; she swaddled me in a huge, padded white coat which barely covered my thighs and elasticated white tights that made my legs feel like sausages. Originally, I was blessed with some heeled silver mules that were about the only glamorous aspect of the whole outfit, but she took one look at me in them and practically yanked them off my feet, claiming that, charmingly as ever, I looked like a cheap prostitute. I ended up spending the day tramping around in some white lace-ups that looked like baguettes. Until Lusky got hold of me, anyway.
As if on cue, my phone rings, rattling manically on the bedside table responsible for bludgeoning my head. I snatch it up before my mum can hear it; she acts like I’m a perpetrator of espionage if I so much as get a text from someone, and insists on shuffling through the whole conversation like she suspects I’ve been swapping God-hating outcries with a satanic worshipper or something. I can probably count on one hand the number of private phone calls I’ve had – she hunches up close to me whenever I’m on the phone so she can hear every last slither of interaction on either end, though she knows I’m only ever talking to Lusky.
I suppose that’s why she’s so intrusive. Lusky pretends not to know, and I pretend not to know that she knows, but we’re all aware that, like most things about me, my mother is not fond of my only friend. There’s a reason for it, but we pretend not to know that, either.
Lusky’s voice pipes up from the other end of the phone, all bouncy and lilting with excitement. That level of enthusiasm shouldn’t be allowed at this time in the morning.
“Morning, Seriss,” she says, and I can practically hear her grinning.
“Morning?” I mumble, incredulous. “In Australia, maybe. It still feels like the middle of the night here.”
“Lighten up,” Lusky giggles. “It’s Xalvadora, right?”
“Really? I forgot. I wondered what all the fuss was about,” I mutter. “That explains why I’m dressed in a white curtain.”
“Aw,” Lusky says sympathetically. “Is it bad this year?”
“Yep. Think white ironing board wearing a bib and a veil, you’ll get a pretty accurate picture.”
“You poor love,” she laughs. “I’ll sort you out later. Still up for the party?”
I inwardly wince. I was never up for the party. I wasn’t even halfway up.
If I’m completely truthful, part of my dislike of Xalvadora stems from Lusky herself. I’d never tell her that, but the fact remains that my enjoyment of the day has been spiralling down from bad to unbearable in the past few years due to her actions. It’s not specifically because of her – more because she sees Xalvadora as an excuse to push the boundaries further than I deem comfortable; she takes advantage of the fact that angels tend to become more complacent on Xalvadora and uses it to do things that she otherwise wouldn’t dare. And I’m the one who always gets roped into raiding the cookie jar with her.
For example, last year, we went to a grungy concert for an indie band that I vaguely knew of and didn’t much like. Lusky ended up getting pally with a shifty old guy whose line of sight stopped and remained at her chest for the whole evening – until she spilt her drink all over him, that is, and he stormed off in a very pissy mood. I was the one who had to lug her all the way home, drunk out of her mind and seemingly puking in the gutter every five minutes. At least she rung me to apologise the next morning, though I’d sooner she hadn’t, because my mother listened in and then yelled at me for a good quarter of an hour. She hadn’t been happy when I’d trudged in the night before, a full half hour after curfew and smelling of alcohol (Lusky had managed to spill it on me as well).
I press my lips together at the memory. I can only imagine what this evening will be like. We’re attending a party of Imongé Bliefield’s, hosted in her (parent-free) mansion alongside upwards of two hundred other guests. I can already see it – me; sat alone as Lusky capers around fully clothed in the pool, ogled from each angle by a different boy.
I am not going to enjoy this.
“Seriss, are you there?” Lusky asks.
“Yeah, yeah,” I mumble, shaking myself back into reality. “Look, I’ve got to go. My mum’s threatening to ban me from the festivities if I don’t come downstairs, and Lord knows I’d hate for that to happen.”
Lusky laughs again. “You’re such a pessimist.”
“Sue me,” I shoot back. “See you later.”
The words are hard to get out, like gravel on my tongue. I put the phone down quickly.
Getting downstairs is a harder task than I expected it to be – my dress is so long that it swishes around my heels and I keep stamping on it. I almost fall from the last step, but a hand plants itself securely on my shoulder, grounding me in position. I look up.
It’s Malo, our guardian. He’s just about to leave.
I curse Lusky for calling me and holding me up. I was looking forwards to speaking to him at breakfast – I wanted to discuss muffin recipes.
“Thanks, Malo,” I say, easing myself off the last step. “Are you going already?”
“Afraid so. I’ve got other homes to visit; I’ve spent too long here as it is. I might see you later, yeah?” he replies, reaching for his coat.
Guardians are angels who are appointed to different households in order to watch over them. They are licenced to visit and check their designated homes three times a day, keeping a lookout for any signs of potential sinful activity among families. The visits aren’t scheduled, and usually consist of a brief look through each room of the house and a handful of routine questions if required, though I’ve not seen Malo conduct a proper check for years. He normally just sits in the kitchen or living room with us for half an hour and compliments my mother on her cooking, helping himself to whatever food is going despite being an angel with no physical need to eat. He’s not a bit like any other guardians I’ve come across – Lusky’s are rigorous and impatient, and practically turn the house upside down with each visit.
Strictly speaking, guardian angels are supposed to rotate and change every month, and you’re never supposed to receive the same one more than once, but somehow we’ve managed to stick with Malo for almost seven years. There has been the odd hiatus in the past, where another angel has taken over his duties, but even then he still visited us in his spare time. My mother sometimes sighs and says he’s unprofessional, but neither me nor my father mind – we like him.
“Can’t you stay for breakfast?” I plead. “We’ve got pineapple and everything.”
He chuckles. “I wish I could, but my superiors wouldn’t be pleased about it. Eat it for the both of us, and you can give me a detailed analogy of its succulent taste later.”
“I won’t be here later. I’m going out.”
Malo sucks his breath in. “With Luskiana?”
“Yeah,” I say, swallowing. It’s safe to tell Malo.
He bites his lip and nods warily in the direction of the kitchen, where my mother is hacking at a grapefruit.
“Good luck. I hope she doesn’t give you too hard a time.”
He shrugs himself into his overcoat, reaches for his hat, and leaves, flashing me an encouraging smile as he goes. It’s hard to feel unsafe with Malo around, even though most of the other angels see him as somewhat of a laughing stock – he’s so lenient, I’m surprised he’s not been reprimanded for it. I suppose that’s why he’s been our guardian for so long, because we’re such a meek, God-fearing little household that most of the angels think it a total waste to appoint any of the fiercer, more authoritarian guardians to watch over us. They’re for the suspicious families, or the ones with bad pasts.
I head into the kitchen, which is cluttered with so many plates of fruit – piled up on tables and sinks and even the floor – that it looks as though a kaleidoscope has stumbled drunkenly into the room and thrown up everywhere. I don’t know how long my mother’s been preparing for, but there are no less than three dozen dishes of assorted fruit commandeering the surfaces of the room. It’s traditional food for Xalvadora because it represents purity and rebirth, but, as ever, my mother is overly insistent on following conventions and seems intent on serving nothing else. I think I should take advantage of her preoccupied state (she’s wrestling with a dragon fruit with an expression one might wear whilst tackling a real dragon) and snatch some proper food while I can, but it’s in a cupboard on the other side of the room, and as the floor is a minefield of fruit I’m not sure it’s wise to attempt crossing it.
I try anyway.
Predictably, I step straight into a bowl of grapefruit. From a third person perspective, I’m sure it would look funny, but as it is, I just have to stand there being shouted at for five minutes with fruity pulp all the way up to my ankle, and it’s about as amusing as desecrated corpse.
I end up spending the next two hours hacking fruit to pieces for penance. I expect the activity to be therapeutic, but that is not the case.
It’s eight o’clock by the time I leave, and my hands still smell of fruit, despite the fact that I’ve washed them about thirty times. I’ve not eaten anything, because given the date my mother seemed to think cereal inappropriate, and proffered me fruit instead, which, oddly enough, I wasn’t too keen on. She insists that food tastes nicer when you’ve prepared it, but I disagree.
As with every year, the Xalvadora town service is being held in the forecourt in front of the local Hellgates. It’s symbolic, I suppose, to stand at the entrance of our eternal prison on the anniversary of its creation, but I don’t particularly enjoy it. It makes me think of sinful creatures, scraped from their bodies, contorted and screaming below the cobblestones, and how sometimes, when it’s quiet, I think I can hear shrieking against the wind. I know that Hell isn’t really beneath me, nor is Heaven above me – they’re somewhere else entirely – but I still can’t shake the feeling that there are demons writhing below the Earth’s surface, that their souls are mere inches from the rest of us. It makes me feel unclean, and no one seems to understand why.
It’s only about a fifteen-minute drive from our house to Harrogate’s Hellgates, but that’s long enough for my father to get lost and my mother to get pissed at him. Luckily, she insisted on setting off almost an hour early, and so we arrive on time. Latecomers are always heavily fined – attendance is not voluntary.
I’m sure that the vicinity of the Hellgates was beautiful once. Before they were built, I’ll bet that the surrounding trees were drenched in greenery, and that the grass grew thick and lush against the sky. It was probably peaceful, a nice pocket of countryside that belonged to nobody but everybody liked to call their own. Free. That’s not a word that you hear much.
But something about Hellgates doesn’t agree with nature. No one knows exactly how, but the darkness of Hell seems to reach beyond the gates and makes its presence known by ruining the world around it. For as long as I can remember, there have been ashy bristles where the grass should be, and flayed, bone-white contortions, like arthritic hands, in place of trees. It doesn’t make for pretty scenery, but it does a good job of reminding us of Hell’s presence, and the horror it encloses.
The Hellgates are located at the centre of the forecourt, and at a first glance you’d be forgiven (well, maybe) for thinking that it was just an old wall. At a distance, it doesn’t look like much, it’s only when you get closer that it starts to have impact.
It is a wall, you can’t escape that, but it’s ten feet tall and constructed of misshapen stones that are probably older than Hell itself, all engraved with symbols and sigils translating messages and warnings long since weathered into illegibility. Twisting metal columns, fashioned by way of long, black blades intertwined around one another, are located at either side of it, glazed with steely sheens and licks of light that do nothing but intensify their sinister look. The centre of the wall bears the entrance – tall, arched doors, constructed of iron and crossed with lockless chains that only an angel has the power to break and reseal. They don’t look like they lead anywhere – like they’d swing open to reveal the other side of the wall.
No human has ever ventured past those doors and returned to inform us of the sight beyond them, and no angel would ever say. Hell is only for those who deserve to see it.
At the top of the wall, directly in the centre, there is a hollowed-out circle in which a bell hangs, dappled with rust and light. On the days when an angel escorts a sinner through the Hellgates, the bell rings constantly throughout the duration of the night, emitting a low, melancholy sound that sweeps over the hills like shadow and reverberates through the walls of the house, keeping me awake for hours. Traditionally, it’s supposed to be a sound of celebration, and a century ago the people hearing it would gather together and rejoice that the world had been ridded of another sinful being. However, for me, I just can’t find it uplifting. Not when I have to get up at six the next day.
As my father swings the car haphazardly into a parking spot that he’ll probably regret choosing later, my mother leans over into the back seat and starts plucking at my clothing, fussing over miniscule juice stains and non-existent creases. I sit rigidly and try to hide the blackcurrant spattered on my cuff.
When we start walking towards the crowd gathered around the Hellgates, I, along with everyone around me, straighten up unconsciously, and suddenly I can’t look at anywhere but the floor. My mother snatches one last furtive tug at my poncho-bib, pulling it down as far as possible like she’s worried my breasts will sneak out from underneath it, and I’m actually quite grateful for it. My arms wrap tightly around my chest, and I’m overcome with the longing to evaporate, or melt, or do something that makes my existence unnoticed.
It’s amazing the effect that Watchmen have on people.
Rows upon rows of them, like fences of shark’s teeth, line the pathway we are following, all kitted out in Kevlar and armed with guns. They’re all wearing the same look, staring distantly at the people stumbling past them like farmers eyeing cattle, and my stomach clenches suddenly, like I’m trying to vomit but have no ammunition. No one likes remaining in a Watchmen’s eyeline for too long, and I can see those on the outer edge of the pathway struggling to keep their composure under their impassive gaze. Even though I’m in the middle, swaddled on either side by bodies, I’m struggling to remember how to walk.
I’m sure it’s the left leg first but it feels so weird and so does the right one maybe I should just get on the floor and crawl no that’s stupid you moron just keep walking-
There’s something about Watchmen that scares people. I think it’s their origin.
I said once that no one ever gets out of Hell, but I suppose that’s not entirely true – not in this case. If a demon is imprisoned for long enough, enduring millenniums upon millenniums of torture and punishment, they can crawl into the form of something new and loyal, something that can be trusted to roam the surface and fight the sins that they are guilty of – a Watchman. It’s about the best a demon can hope for. Once they have truly understood and accepted the weight of their crimes, they are pulled out of Hell and deposited into a new body, often that of a burly, muscular man specifically engineered by the angels to be as strong as possible. There are no female Watchmen, not in terms of physicality, though that hardly matters. After the time that they’ve spent in Hell, I doubt any of the demons remember anything as trivial as gender.
They make people uneasy, though – it never really feels like they’re here to protect us. Even if the Watchmen have finally understood the depth of their crimes and are ready to fight sinful activity as we do, it’s still strange to be so close to a demon, one that’s experienced the horrors of what I’ve only heard about. No one ever truly changes, I’m sure of it.
As we get closer to the central crowd, the number of Watchmen starts to diminish, and their presence is replaced by the authorities - angels in charge of general security and human interaction. It’s quite funny, really, because everyone starts to relax at the sight of them, even though the authorities are in the upper sector of Heaven’s hierarchy and could probably blow us all to bits without so much as a quirk of an eyebrow. I guess it’s because they don’t look as frightening; they use far less physically enhanced bodies, often favouring the imposing forms of tall, callous-looking businessmen. Angels have no need for brawn.
Angels don’t really look like humans. For all Malo’s blonde curls, sweet smiles and fifties overcoat, the fact remains that the guise under which I see him in could be no more different to how he really looks. Angels are complex, warped beings that can only exist in their true forms in realms such as Heaven and Hell – Earth isn’t compatible. It’s rumoured that if a human so much as glances upon an angel’s true appearance, it can kill them in a heartbeat.
In order for angels to interact with mankind, they need to divert their souls into human bodies - Xalvadora was the first angel to do this, using Eve’s sacrificed body to walk the Earth and cleanse it. Nevertheless, this wasn’t ideal - few humans are strong enough to contain angels even briefly, and it’s borderline impossible on a long term basis. Prolonged possession by an angel, even in the strongest of humans, often leads to death within a matter of weeks, or even days.
So the angels invented Masquerades; human bodies specifically engineered to contain angelic souls, which allow them to walk the Earth freely and exercise their powers from within a human form. Of course there’s still the odd incident in which an angel takes hold of a faulty Masquerade and it breaks, often resulting in a half-mile crater and a death toll north of a hundred, depending on the location. It’s not foolproof, but it’s the best we’ve got.
We settle ourselves into the crowd, which is a sea of white clothing. To pass the time and boost my morale, I set myself to looking for outfits that are even worse than mine, and spot only one (a full-body latex garment that cruelly emphasises every ounce of the girl’s podgy body) before my mother yanks me back by my veil, hissing at me to stop staring like that.
“Say that to the Watchmen,” I mutter, but not loud enough for her to hear.
I sigh and shift my gaze to the Hellgates instead, glancing over the symbols engraved on the doors that, rumour has it, were scraped into the metal by God himself. They carve out the message that defines our world, that everyone knows, that everybody lives by.
Angels are watching over you.