I pause when I reach the threshold of the grand entrance and stare inside the elaborate school facility.
It is beautiful. Huge floor-to-ceiling windows line the back wall, with long hallways stretching from either side. The floor is a marbled concoction of white and gold hues. A chandelier drips from the ceiling, the hundreds of thousands of crystals sparkling in the light of the sunny afternoon.
And the students. They wander about, the boys and girls, chatting and giggling, their voices light and airy. They wear freshly pressed uniforms of white and gold.
I turn to the soft-spoken, gentle voice to my right. A woman stands there. She sports high cheekbones and blonde hair pulled into a tight bun at the top of her head. She wears the same uniform as the others––though hers includes an intricate white jacket lined with gold pleating on the cuffs.
“Yes?” The word is low and gruff. I clear my throat. “Yes, that’s me.” Better.
“Welcome. Come this way.”
Your first task: infiltrate.
I follow the woman as she shows me around the school; she pauses occasionally to explain the various rooms. There’s the music room, which is vast and includes every instrument available, though she seems particularly attuned to harps. There’s the library, with endless rows of books stretching as far as the eyes can see in every language and in every format. And there’s the studio, of course. I inspect this room carefully, glancing at the rows of weapons lining the back walls. Daggers and spears and bows and swords. I take note.
The flying room is the most unique of them all––and the most daunting. I smile at the woman as she leads me through the doors. The room forms an enormous white cube; the walls and ceiling and floor are all one identical material: cushioning. She walks me through a makeshift lesson, describing the level of stunts and movements for a Dive. I nod along, listening closely, asking clarifying questions.
I must be convincing.
Your second task: learn
The first week is challenging, but I learn much about the school and the angels that populate it. The students engage in a variety of lessons every day, such as flying, magic, healing, and fighting, although not much emphasis or time is spent on the last subject. I am not surprised. They are angels, after all. They are weak.
I absorb as much information as I am able. But while it is simple to watch the students, to learn the classes, to walk the part and perform the role––it is challenging to break through to the inner Core.
I know it is somewhere here, at this training facility. Of the five schools for training angels, this one is the most protected, the most hidden. The most guarded. We have worked for centuries to break into this place.
And I was chosen.
And trained. Extensively.
But they did not prepare me for the challenge of finding the information on the whereabouts of the Core itself. It is as if all the students and all the teachers know nothing about the the object. The situation is almost laughable; I have spent the entirety of my life dedicated to studying the entity, absorbed in the recordings of its sightings for hours every day, learning all the ways to defeat it.
And yet it seems that I am the sole individual who even knows it exists.
Your third task: befriend
“Dabria, why don’t you give it a turn? I haven’t seen you try a single flying move since you arrived,” Gabriel says kindly. He looks at me with those large, unblinking brown eyes. I do not understand how all the others love him so; I find his gaze deeply off-putting.
“I-I-I’m t-too s-s-scared, G-Gabriel,” I fake stutter easily, hunching my shoulders and flashing my gaze down toward the ground. I stare up at him through my eyelashes. “P-p-please, not y-yet.”
He smiles kindly, still staring at me with those wide eyes, before turning to Angellica. I have to bite my lip to hide my scowl at such a ridiculous name.
“Angellica, will you help Dabria with this lesson today?”
“Of course, Gabriel,” she says brightly, smiling at me.
It takes all my energy to return the gesture.
She becomes my partner from that day on, energetically helping me in all my classes, hurrying to walk beside me, always trying to speak to me. And though part of me desperately longs to shake her off, I smile through my teeth, certain it does not touch my eyes but hoping it is convincing, nonetheless.
She does not seem to suspect a thing.
And so, I ask her questions. Many, many questions.
She, like the others, does not indicate any knowledge about the Core. She only longs to chat about ethereal matters, to speak of the Father, and to practice flying. She does not touch a weapon in the studio in all my time of being here. Something tells me she has never fought a battle.
So much for God’s warriors.
Still, I ask her. Repeatedly. Any question that hints toward the whereabouts of the Core. I almost give up hope, until something she says catches my attention.
We sit at one of the tables in the library. Angellica is immersed in a book. I am pretending to be, all the while watching her and glancing around the library, wondering if there was anything I had missed in my initial search. I stare at each row of books, until I see something unusual at the back of the library. A solid black door.
All the doors in this school are gold.
I stare at it curiously.
“What are you looking at?” Angellica hisses, waking me from my reverie.
“That door. Where does it lead to?”
Her gaze flickers to the door and back to me. “Oh, you don’t want to go in there,” she says, her voice ominous.
“Only the archangels go through there. It’s the…it’s the door to Hell,” she whispers, her voice dropping almost inaudibly on the last word.
I have to dig my fingernails into my palms to keep from laughing.
It is not the door to Hell. I know, because there is only one door from Hell to this location. And it is very top-secret information. And I know for a fact that the door from Hell is not in this school. It is at a cemetery on Earth.
I know, because I came through that door from Hell.
“Thanks for telling me, Angellica,” I say quietly, smiling.
Your fourth task: destroy
The door is, of course, locked. I am not surprised. But I am not unprepared, either.
I walk up to the door. Some nearby angels glance at me curiously as I stand before it, perhaps wondering what I am doing in front of this supposed door from Hell.
So I whisper a spell. And all the angels in the room collapse to the floor.
I only have a minute.
I quickly draw a dagger from my uniform; I had taken it from the studio. I wrench back my sleeve and slice across the skin on my forearm, drawing blood. Then, after dipping my fingers on my other hand in my blood, I form a circular symbol on the door, murmur a spell, and press my palm to the cool surface.
A flash of light. And the door unlocks.
I smile. I open it.
There, at the back of this seemingly small closet, rests a glowing white orb, about the size of my palm. It sits atop a black pillar, blindingly bright. I squint my watering eyes, trying not to look directly at it.
Twenty seconds left.
I walk forward. And then, quickly, I pull the flask from my pocket and unscrew the lid.
A shout from behind me. A warning.
I pour the blood of my Master over the orb.
The stink of death wanders through the halls as every angel in existence falls from grace.