Parry frowned as one by one the others at the bus stop seemed to drift away from the two of them. Typical humans. They encounter something that doesn't fit into their afternoon-family-comedy worldview and turn away from it. So his plan of putting Ivy on a bus for the next town was going to be a no-go. They'd be Sslither food by the time it pulled up, if the schedule was to be believed. And the Terrostodon wouldn't be against wrecking the bus to get at its meal, either.
"Walk with me, please," Parry said, taking Ivy's arm in his. "First rule of Angel Club is: I'm on your side and at your side. No matter what I do, no matter what I say, no matter where I go. Second rule of Angel Club: See first rule.
"As for why this is happening to you, well... it's not pleasant to think about. But when you tried to, you know-" Parry made a slicing motion over his wrist "-you marked yourself as vulnerable to them. See, no matter how unfair it might seem, every one of you humans has a natural appointment with the universe. And when you reach that time, one of us is always there to collect you up safe and sound. When you try to cut it short or do some great harm to yourself, or to others, is when you register on their radar. You put yourself in that thing's sights, Ivy. And you're going to be in its sights until you put things right with yourself. No, don't ask me how you do that. You really are a unique snowflake, so the solution is yours to find."
Right turn, down Broadway and toward the west side of town. Toward Ivy's house. Parry quickened his pace as a deep vibration shook through his feet. The Terrostodon had lost patience it seemed.
"Alrighty then. If you really want to do this... Ivy dear, I'm going to turn around and take care of things. Just remember, no matter what you see, no matter what I do... I'm still me."
Parry spun on his heel, taking Ivy by the hand and twirling her around, only to release his grip and step forward to face the Terrostodon. The suit, the walking stick, the bright hair and fair skin and bubbly voice were all gone. There stood a figure edging on seven feet tall, sporting six feathered wings and wearing a cloak of night and starlight. His walking stick had been transformed into a sword of moonlight, clutched in both hands. Beneath a hood of darkness, two white orbs smoldered like coals in a furnace. It was a creature both bright and terrible to behold, a form as beautiful and deadly as an atomic blast.
"I am Parael Magnus, Seventh Seraph to the Seventh Dominion. I have walked the nine Pits and burned my name into the walls of the great Nether. And you are a mindless beast."
Being carried bridal style for a mile down a residential street made Ian turn eleven shades of red, but with his ankle twisted that way, he was too busy worrying if he'd ever be able to run again, much less walk right. His football career was over just when it started. And the recruiter sitting on his porch would take one look at the leg and say 'Nice try kid. Now you have to pay for college all on your own.'
God, what was he doing? Mark wasn't in the ground yet and all he could think about was himself. Me me me. What about his boyfriend, dead and about to go six feet under?
"So, um, can I ask you something?" Ian shuffled just a little bit in Aoi's arms. "What comes after. Heaven or paradise or whatever... it's not... I mean, how bad is it really?"
The gentleman on the front porch cleared his throat, standing from the porch swing as Aoi approached the house, cigarette in one hand and an old bowler hat on his head.
"My my," he said in a smooth southern drawl. "Looks like you had a little accident there, Ian. Don't worry though. I know a good doctor or two up in Charlotte. We can get you squared away and back on the field in no time. You'll need to let your little..."
The man paused, tilting his head to the side at Aoi for a moment. he paused, raised the cigarette to his lips and took a long breath. The smoke exhaled through his nose was thicker than it ought to have been, darker and heavier like a choking fog. And while Ian had seen people with what could be described as a "glimmer" in their eyes, he'd never seen it so literally on display from this guy.
Wait, what was his name again? Ian could swear he'd been introduced to the recruiter a few months ago. And this guy was at all of his games without fail, too.
"Aoi?" The recruiter tilted his head just a little, squinting his bronze eyes at her. "Aoi Hikari, as I kill and damn, it is you! I haven't seen you since... since that fine old man threw you into that tub out in Oregon. I see you're no worse for wear after that little escapade. You'll be happy to know that our mutual friend Samuel is in fine spirits running from the law out in Idaho. He does send his regrets that he couldn't be here, but our contract ended when he got his paws on you."
The Recruiter dropped his cigarette onto the porch, stamping it out beneath his boot. The streams of smoke continued to rise from his nostrils well after he'd finished.
"'Course I'm playing a different game now. You were chump change out west compared to what I got here. But you're not the one I'm here to speak to. Now if you'll please drop the boy so we can have some words. Maybe you should remember a happier time and place-"
*Hands on her throat. Forcing her down, down, down, into the water. It's neither hot nor cold, but it's no comfort because he has hands big as hams and arms that could be made of steel, and holding her broken body under forces her muscles to breathe in water, let it flow down into her lungs and all she can see is a bright light through the surface of the waves she's making and the light grows bigger and bigger as her muscles catch fire from oxygen deprivation until-*
The Recruiter reaches into his jacket pocket and produces another cigarette. Whatever amount of power he's used to send Aoi into her memories, he seems unphazed by it in the slightest. "While she's busy, we need to have ourselves a talk. Ian, I have five of your friends in my power. And I need a sixth by this week's end to keep my cycle going. i have four of you pegged, but only one has to go. Now, I want you to think long and hard about if you'll accept my offer willingly. I see a lot of potential in you, boy. More than the artist and the rich kid and the reject. You want college? It's yours. Sports fame? I'll have you a number one draft pick by the time you can drink beer. Another boyfriend in a heartbeat. Or hell, I can even rearrange you to like girls. Or at least tolerate them. All you have to do is forsake the girl here."
"And if I say yes, you get my immortal soul or something like that?"
The Recruiter took a quick drag on his cigarette, glancing at Aoi with a smile on his face. "Something like that. I'll be stopping by the others to make the same offer, though. And anyone who says no goes on my shit list. Say yes and your life is smooth sailing. Say no... well, you wouldn't want to go into that house right now if you said no."