Names have power. Even awful ones.
I called myself Feather. But really? I was Useless. So I chose to save Sanctuary, though that meant I lost everything: my majestic sheets, my old name, my fudging body… and my sweet, sexy soulmate, Mikhail.
When the super-hot and literally horny Rumple sends me back home, not everyone busts out the confetti. You’d think by sacrificing myself, I would have solved a lot of problems. But I only uncovered more, and made some new, powerful, glitter-hating enemies.
When Protectors start to disappear, I’m stuck wandering through Sanctuary’s basement/sex dungeon to find them… and that’s where I discover a terrible truth. The real danger isn’t on the other side of the Great Gate.
It was inside Sanctuary all along.
I’d known a lot of pain in my short four hundred and eighteen years. I’d been beaten, starved, whipped, burned, poked in the eye by a clumsy stepbrother with a sharp stick, bitten on the ass one time by an actual ass—which sounds funny until it’s dirty donkey teeth in your butt in a century way before antibiotics were invented. I’d even had that unforgettable lobotomy, and a few less significant surgeries, in the days before morphine.
But the pain I felt now, floating between worlds, was the worst yet.
I was ninety-eight percent certain I was in Hell. Except for the music, the laughter, and the fact that my oldest friend—whose name I still didn’t know—was holding my blown-apart atoms together with some sort of metaphysical super glue while he mocked me.
“That’s your guess, little one? You think that’s my name? Seraphiel.”
I grunted, or did the non-corporeal equivalent. My atoms and particles were still floating a little too freely to make sound, and I was certain I had no lips to talk with. Or lungs to breathe. In fact, when I walked into the Great Gate in Sanctuary to sacrifice myself, I had felt my whole body get vaporized, so… how was I even thinking? I had no brain!
Suddenly, I felt a lot too much like a scarecrow, far away from the Kansas I’d lived in once when houses were still sod huts on the plains. Only I wasn’t just missing my brain. My long, silver hair, my green eyes, even my small, smut-covered body, were all gone, too. All I had left of the old Feather was my faceless friend and mentor since my first life on Earth, who always took care of me when I was hurting.
Seraphiel is my first guess, I insisted mentally. Come on, tell me. I’m right, aren’t I? I felt my atoms getting closer together, which made the pain worse. Rumple, I said, reverting to the shortened form of Rumpelstiltskin that I’d been calling him for centuries. Stop stalling. I get three guesses each time. I only need one.
“Why do you think that’s my name?” he asked after what could have been a year or a second. Time had lost its consistency here. “Where did you hear it?”
My mind ached, but my heart would have, too, if I still had one. Dangit, now I was thinking of the tin man… and that made me remember a super disturbing amateur porno I’d seen where Dorothy got it on with her three guys, the wizard, and two flying monkeys. I still didn’t understand how she’d gotten both those ruby slippers inside the tin man’s—
“Little one?” Impatience and a sharp emotion I couldn’t recognize.
Don’t get weird about it, Rumple, but I heard it from my… I hesitated on the word mate, worried that he would be as judgmental and cruel as the so-called Protectors and Guides in Sanctuary. Mikhail—the one and only Maker, one of the last two High Angeli in Sanctuary, and more importantly my big, sexy, Growly Bear—had given me one of his feathers and mated me in an effort to save my life. I felt a wash of sorrow as I realized that feather, the one he’d hidden on my nape, was gone, too.
I didn’t even have a nape.
“What’s wrong, little one?” Rumple’s voice was grave.
I don’t have a nape, I thought, wishing I could cry. Wishing I could tell Rumple what had happened. But the last time I’d shared my list of who I wanted to knock angel boots with, he’d gotten mad and left.
“That’s an oddly specific body part to miss,” he said when I didn’t go on. “What was it about your nape that makes your soul feel like it’s trying to shatter again?”
I waited a moment, then whisper-thought, If I tell you, will you stay? Will you still be my… friend? I wasn’t sure if that was what we were; he’d gotten sort of handsy with me once in a dream, but I wasn’t a hundred percent certain it had been real. I mean, my third-favorite dream, with the seven cordon bleu chefs who took turns rubbing buttercream frosting on my lady parts, licking it off, and hand feeding me tiny, candied flowers between orgasms, always seemed real at the time, too.
“I will stay,” he murmured. “I am sorry I left.”
Were you angry at me?
“Never at you.” I could still feel his imaginary, enormous hands scooping my atoms together and pressing them into shape, like he was working watery dough. He hummed while he moved me around. Rumple was always singing or humming.
There was a feather on my nape, I thought. His hands stilled. I was dying, in Sanctuary. Remember when I protected that guy, Righteous, when he cut himself? It was too much for me to carry, all that evil. I couldn’t handle that much smut. I still wanted to giggle a little when I called it that.
“Who saved you? Who mated you?” The whole world—or the whole Hell, whatever—shook for a moment. Like the darkness around us might just shatter and fly loose, cutting the universe into little ribbons as it exploded.
Mikhail, I said, hoping Rumple didn’t go ballistic.
The darkness went silent. “Oh.” I had a sense of deep curiosity, and something more. Longing. And affection. “Tell me about Mikhail.”
If I’d had eyes, I would have narrowed them. You don’t know him? He’d hinted once that he knew of Gavriel, Mikhail’s closest friend in Sanctuary. If he knew one, he had to know the other.
No answer came, only more of that touch, soothing the burning and remaking me into…something. Maybe I would be a ball of soul light, like the Novices Mikhail made in his workshop, the ones who went down to Earth to become guardian angels for at-risk humans.
I felt my atoms do the equivalent of a sigh. I sort of missed Earth. Not the pain and being poor, but the vast array of experiences I’d had there. Finally, I answered Rumple’s question. Mikhail is an artist. He makes baby guardian angels, although they’re called Novices.
“Mikhail makes Novices? How?” There was an urgency in his question I didn’t understand.
Well, he said he used to dip into the Well of Souls for the material, for their naming marks. But that got sealed up by his apprentice Azazel four centuries ago, and… I remembered the moment when Mikhail had pulled off his robe and revealed the hundreds of scars that covered his body. He’d had no other choice, if he wanted to keep Sanctuary going, but to sacrifice his own soul energy to create new Novices, guardian angels to send to Earth to help keep the balance.
He didn’t have access to the Well, so he used that awful knife—the one I had to use to cut away my shadows?—to give a tiny piece of himself to every Novice since the Well was ruined. For their naming marks. He carved each one out of his own flesh.
I felt rather than heard a dark curse that made my atoms swirl with suspicion. Rumple was far too interested in this story. I think Mikhail’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever encountered, but I suppose some might not find him handsome, I hummed into the void. He’s scarred from sacrifice. All over.
“You believe sacrifice makes a soul more beautiful?” Something in Rumple’s voice was amused, but sad. He’d always refused to tell me what he looked like, and even if I’d felt his wings and muscles in our last dream-talk—and apparently, he’d never skipped ab day, wherever he spent most of his time—I had a suspicion that he didn’t consider himself attractive. It seemed strange to think of beings made up of mostly spiritual dough—or batter, in my case—so hung up on how their shells looked. The Guides in Sanctuary had acted like the smut I wore on my exterior was who I was, and that I could never change. That I was less than them.
Which to be fair, might have been true. I had killed a whole lot of pedophiles and bad guys in my lives on Earth, and I didn’t regret doing it one bit. I’d made it right in the end—I’d made sure none of their evil deeds left a mark anywhere except on my own skin. I wondered if Rumple had scars like Mikhail. Did he think if I ever saw them, I would be repulsed?
“Well?” Rumple murmured. “Does it? Do Mikhail’s scars make him more attractive to you?” His tone was so sad, I would have cried if I had tear ducts. I teased instead, Sure, but it’s not just his smoking hot bod that does it for me. He’s a Maker, you know. He’s pretty dang good with his hands.
His laughter was like galaxies colliding, sparks of reds, golds, blues, greens, and dark, crystalline colors I’d never seen before shooting outward. Whoa, that’s pretty, I said at the fireworks.
When they finally settled down, he asked, “Did you merge with him?” There was something more than curiosity in his question. There was… hope. “It didn’t hurt you?”
I was glad I couldn’t blush. I had shared pretty much everything with Rumple in my life, even my hypotheses about how human-kraken sex could work in the real world, not just the novels I was addicted to, but this might be crossing a line. Well, he said we were just going to merge physically. But he got a little carried away, and… yeah. We merged. It felt amazing. I tried to stop thinking, stop picturing the fierce joy and release on Mikhail’s face as he’d hovered over me, our souls entwining.
A low whistle let me know I hadn’t succeeded. “If anyone could make Mikhail lose control, it would be you, Feather.” Just as I suspected; Rumple did know Mikhail.
My Growly Bear’s scars didn’t make him even the tiniest bit less sexy, I said after a while, waiting for Rumple’s laughter to stop before I went on, Of course, when he showed the other Protectors what he’d done for them, some of them looked at him like he was hideous.
“The same way they looked at you and your soul smut, when you first arrived there?” I didn’t answer; he’d held me often enough over the centuries while I learned to bear the crushing weight of the evil he’d taught me to take on, as penance for my first real crime. The only true murder I’d committed, but could never find it in my heart to regret. I only wished I had done it before that rat blastard had killed my earthly sister.
Rumple’s next question drew me back. “But Mikhail didn’t think you were ugly?” I was about to answer, when the whisper “always was the most perceptive of the Angeli” intruded on my amoeba-thoughts.
I guessed your name, didn’t I? When he didn’t answer, I allowed myself to feel anger. You’re Seraphiel, the one they call Rafe. You were Mikhail’s and – I hesitated. The last time I’d mentioned Gavriel’s name, Rumple had said some angry word in an angelic language, almost bursting my eardrums, and stormed off across the universe or whatever. I tried not to think of him, but the pain of that moment washed over me like a tidal wave, and I was unwillingly drawn back into the memory.
Gavriel loomed over me in the room where his beloved mate Arabella slept. She was motionless, and felt almost like a supportive, silent presence. If she hadn’t been there, I might have fled.
“Useless. Trash. Nothing.” He spat the words—my name—and his lip twisted into that perfect, beautiful curl that reminded me silently that he was better than me. Literally. More perfect, more Angelic, purer. He was beautiful to look at: tall, with sweeping, bright golden wings and skin, and gleaming hair and gold and blue eyes to match. But the glint in those eyes now was sharper than the soul knife I’d used to cut the stain off my body.
I was used to name-calling. I’d been called much worse in my years on Earth. But then his eyes closed for a moment, his long, golden-fringed lashes sweeping down like cruel butterflies, and he accused me of something I couldn’t live with.
“You’re destroying him,” Gavriel rasped, his voice thrumming with pain as he spoke of Mikhail. “He was already weak, apparently from centuries of carving new soul light out of his own flesh. With your burden of shadows on his shoulders, he’s fading. He knows as well as I do that he only has so much time left, now that he’s carrying weight for you as well.”
I could handle not deserving my mate. I knew I was trash. But I could never live with the knowledge that I had destroyed my Growly Bear. My undeserved soulmate.
I cried, and mourned, and prayed for courage to do what I knew what I had to.
And then I kissed Arabella goodbye and went to sacrifice myself for her and for my best friend, Sunny. For Mikhail…and for the rest of a realm almost entirely populated by beings who detested me.
I tried to send a mental smile to Rumple, and a thought about my favorite Earth tattoo: NO REGERTS. But my mind flickered to the mob in the Assembly Hall, shouting for me, Arabella, and even Mikhail, to be sacrificed to shore up the fragile Great Gate. My fear, and Mikhail’s deep sadness, and the crowd’s currents of panic, anger, and judgment.
For a moment, the void around us vibrated and hummed with a peculiar, terrifying energy that made that memory pale in comparison. I tried to collect my atoms and tuck myself closer to Rumple’s chest. But that was where the strange sensations originated.
After a while, Rumple spoke. “Gavriel is why you’re here? He condemned you to be unmade, and our best friend to….” His voice stopped, and I tried not to think about whether or not Mikhail was missing me.
Then I realized what he’d said: our best friend.
You really are Seraphiel. You were his best friend, and Mikhail’s, the one who left to go fix the imbalance in the Abyss…
He hummed for a while, the tune almost a dirge. “Yes, little one. This is the Abyss.”
Oh no, I said, when I could think-speak again. Then all those High Angeli and Protectors who sacrificed themselves by walking into the Great Gate, they ended up in Hell? They sacrificed themselves for nothing?
Laughter spilled out across the void. “You are the only soul created whose first thought would be of others, of the ones who went before you. Concern for them, and not yourself. How did the Singer of Songs ever play such a perfect tune?”
I latched onto that thought, desperate to change the subject. If the sacrifice I’d made had been for nothing, if I’d left Mikhail, and Sunny, for no reason…that would break me entirely. The Singer of Songs. Sunny said that name. That’s the creator of the universe?
“The Great Goddess Herself. The Singer of Songs, the Maker of All Things, the Dreamer of Infinite Dreams,” he murmured, his hands moving around my form—and now that I thought about it, my atoms were sort of balling up. His song changed to one I knew, a love song with thousands of verses. He’d sung it to me a lot over the years.
So She’s real, I mused. Does She know what’s going on in Sanctuary? Does She have some sort of a plan?
I felt a tap on what could have been my nose. Or my butt. I wasn’t sure which end was up here in the Abyss.
“She does have a plan, Little Sacrifice. Just because you can’t perceive it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.” A tiny sparkle shot across the infinite void, like a delayed Roman candle. “How could you see it, anyway? You don’t even have eyeballs.”
I’m not a Little Sacrifice. I’m a Great Sacrifice, jerkwad, I thought, before the form he’d been smooshing together broke apart into atoms and quarks and all sorts of sub-atomic particles… and Rumple started all over again, his love song never stopping.
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