Winged

“To Leap is our duty, we Leap for the love of the Earth.”

When Friedel McBride was taken to the realm of the dead, everything changed. The first novel in the Wingéd series follows her story as she is thrown into a new, divine world, filled with winged spirits who guide the living. They are the Wingéd, and they are in danger. In order to earn her wings, Friedel must take the Leap, a long dive off the highest cliff in the mountains, but this cannot be done unless she confronts her mortal coil. As she prepares with her Candidate class, the secrets of her past begin to arise. If she is unable to face the crimes of her past, she’ll be lost to the abyss forever. And lurking within the hallowed corridors, something sinister is causing them to lose more candidates. Friedel is their only hope, and she must find out why their numbers are diminishing before they discover the truth about her. But can someone whose life reveals such evils ever be redeemed?

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CH. 1

 

Friedel was bleeding. She tried her best to put pressure against her wound while still focusing on the road before her, but it proved to be an impossible task, each swerve a sharp reminder of the stabbing pain in her side. Dripping, she could feel the blood trickle through her fingers and slowly roll down toward the leather seats. She needed a doctor, but she couldn’t go the hospital. Too many people would be asking questions she couldn’t answer.

Instead, she pulled up past a few houses safely nestled on a cul-de-sac, where doors remained unlocked. She stopped the car, got out, and staggered across the perfectly cut grass before nearly tripping over the unchecked pile of sympathy cards.

Friedel’s mother and step-father were sleeping. The house still smelled of the fragrant flowers that littered the entryway, mantle, and piano. It was so immaculate that she felt a tinge of guilt knowing the blood would stain the plush beige carpet.

She scaled the stairs, huffing and groaning, and went into her grandmother’s old bathroom. Her sewing kit was under the sink for when buttons and hemlines went rogue. But Friedel had a different job for the needle and thread. Lifting her shirt was a poor idea, breaking important clots as the blood dried to the fabric, but Friedel worked quickly to close up the gaping wound. It wasn’t a doctor’s precision, but the bleeding slowed. Thank God.

Shedding her soaked jacket, she downed half a bottle of painkillers and dragged herself toward the bed. The loss of blood had a dizzying effect as she tripped and crawled under the sheets. The summer night made blankets unnecessary, so she slept without them until she heard a crash in the wee morning hours. Friedel pulled with all of her might to raise her eyelids. There was a shadow above her, but she couldn’t tell who it was. “Sorry about the carpet, Mom…” she said in her delirium. “I’ll clean it up later.”

Friedel heard a growling noise, and suddenly became aware of herself bleeding again. But she couldn’t move; she was so weak.

“Angel Wingéd…” the shadow growled.

“Get away from her or so help me, you’ll regret the day you set foot in this house…”

Friedel closed her eyes. She couldn’t hear anything anymore.

It was several hours before she was found. Despite the heat of summer radiating from her window, Friedel McBride, the eldest daughter of a prominent banker, felt cold while tucked in her bed. She clutched at her blanket and snuggled against the pale blue pillows, but her body quaked from the chill until she awoke, rolling from her bed as her teeth chattered violently. Her eyes searched the room, and she thought she should be able to see her breath at this temperature. But Friedel wasn’t breathing.

On the bed, as if she were sleeping, Friedel’s body was motionless, her dark brown hair lying there softly across her face and along her jaw line. The black mascara smudged on her cheek. For some reason, Friedel’s mind couldn’t interpret what she was seeing. She stared down at herself and wondered, who was that sleeping in her bed? She reached out to touch the poor girl’s blue lips and pale, unearthly skin when a shrill cry caused her to pull her hand back.

“Friedel!” It was her mother. “What the hell’s all over my floor?”

The footsteps rattled the floor as her mother’s feet pounded the stairs with frustration and turned the golden knob to the room. “Friedel…”

“Mom?” Friedel tried to reply, barely recognizing the woman in front of her.

Mrs. McBride’s face contorted in horror, and she gasped, seeing the massive amount of blood that saturated the bed and dried there. She hurried to her daughter’s side and shook her. “Friedel? Friedel, wake up. No, no, baby, wake up!”

Friedel felt like she was coming out of a daze as the older woman groped at the body’s neck. “Mom… Mom, I’m right here!”

She jerked at the loose sheets, revealing a large laceration across the body’s stomach; the poor stitching had been pulled apart and the body’s skin had been shredded.

“Code!” Mrs. McBride cried out as the tears started streaming down her face.

Friedel knew that word. Her mother had been a nurse for over twenty years. In her distress, she was trying to call for the other nurses, knowing none would come and save her. That meant only one thing. Friedel pulled at her shirt and groped at her stomach, looking for damage so evident on the body in her bed.

Her mother, regaining her composure, screamed for her husband. “Roy! Roy!”

Friedel turned to the door as she heard her step-dad run down the hallway with papers and fountain pen still in hand, and his reading glasses resting on the tip of his nose. Quite disheveled looking, he slid across the hardwood floor with his socks. “What is it, Mabs?”

“Call 911! Go!” Mrs. McBride, on the verge of hysterics, futilely started to do chest compressions. “No,” she started talking to the body. “You can’t be dead. You… my baby…” She beat on the body’s inert breast with her fist.

“I’m what?”

“Friedel?” a small voice asked, coming up the stairs.

Mrs. McBride snapped back when Friedel’s youngest sister, Kestrel, having heard the commotion, snuck into the doorway after her father dashed down the stairs.

“Why are you calling 9-1-1? That’s for emergencies. Is it an emergency?” the little red-headed girl queried.

It was more than either of them could bear to hear. “Kestrel, sweetie.” Mrs. McBride used her body as a barrier to block Kestrel’s view of the scene. “Let’s go downstairs. Hurry, now.”

“But what about Friedel? Is she in trouble? Why are you crying?”

Friedel heard as Mrs. McBride held Kestrel close, muffling Kestrel’s words with her body, and closed the door behind. “No, sweetie. Come on. We’re going to have ice cream for breakfast.”

“’Ice cream for breakfast?’”

“Yes, but we have to hurry so your dad doesn’t eat it all. Hurry now!” Mrs. McBride directed, and the door shut completely, leaving the room eerily silent once more.

Dead…? The word hung in the air like a thick fog. She couldn’t even… remember anything. Unable to look at the body, she backed away into the corner behind her closet door and didn’t move. She didn’t understand. She was only nineteen. It didn’t make sense. Clutching at her head, she tried to remember, but it was just so fuzzy.

An hour rolled by with nothing but her body to keep her company. She thought there would be more to it than this as she watched life go on without her. It was all she could think of to do.

Eventually, she watched the coroner come in and pronounce her dead. They cordoned off her room with the bright yellow crime scene tape. Friedel stood up and began to pace the floor, wondering if she were some kind of ghost. It wasn’t too long before she worked up the courage to walk over to her body once more.

Her mother returned as well and ducked under the tape while the police questioned her step-dad and sat on the bed crying quietly as she took some things out of her purse. Friedel pursed her lips together. “What are you doing?”

Mrs. McBride took out some herb along with some smooth colorful stones placing them down the middle of Friedel’s body in a Chakra color sequence, purple near the head to the red at her sacrum. Mr. McBride came in, “Mabel, the police said not to touch anything.”

“Roy?” Friedel circled him, and Mr. McBride shivered.

Mrs. McBride looked at him with the same intense brown eyes that Friedel had. “You shivered.”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean–.”

“Roy, that’s the reason I’m doing this. Just to be sure,” she insisted. “Just go downstairs and stall the police.”

Friedel got closer and realized that she was doing the same ritual they had done to her Gran, who had died two weeks ago from Alzheimer’s disease. She had always thought of it as some weird superstition, but Mrs. McBride set the herb on fire with great respect and reverence.

Friedel could barely remember the stories that her mother used to tell her as a little girl and grew frustrated as she watched the fire burn.

Mr. McBride persisted, “But Mabs–.”

“I won’t have my daughter left out for them to get,” Mrs. McBride turned her head to watch the flame burn out.

“Leave me out for whom to get?” Friedel began to ask, but the smell of the herb loomed so strongly in the air that Friedel felt sick to her stomach. “Mom? Mom…?” She clung to the shape of her mother on the bed as her entire world blurred and began to spin. “… I don’t understand. What did you do?” She fell back against the wall and onto her rear end as her nails dug into the floor. Faster and faster. “Please… someone help me!”

Before she knew it, the room was empty. The room stopped spinning and her vision cleared. As she looked around, she noticed her body was gone and she was completely alone. She rose and wobbled on her feet despite her lingering disorientation.

She felt a breeze rush past her. Her stomach churned again, and she closed her eyes until she heard. “Be careful, you wouldn’t want to hit your head,” someone advised.

Friedel looked up with frightened eyes she gasped and landed back on the floor. She hadn’t heard anyone enter the room, and Friedel felt cold once more. A woman stood there… with wings. They were beautiful, light green, and paper thin, much like those she had seen of butterflies pinned to a display in museums, but less colorful.

She threw herself back against the wall. “Who are you?”

“Do not be afraid,” the woman continued softly, “your discomfort should subside. It does tend to be a difficult transition for new souls. Feel free to take a moment. We have all the time in the world.”

Friedel stared, but she found that the longer the woman stood there, the calmer that she felt. “Uh… thank you, I suppose.” Friedel nodded toward the strange woman as she examined her. She had trained eyes, dark sleek hair, and tanned skin; her dark green tunic and brown leggings clung closely to her body. She still wasn’t sure, but something told her the woman was warm with an overwhelming amount of understanding. The woman cocked her head to the side with a smile more loving than a mother gazing upon her child. Though, Friedel had to admit that she hadn’t deserved a smile like that in a long time. “Who are you?” she repeated.

The woman’s smile widened. “My name is Mien.”

“Are you an angel?”

“No, I am a Moth,” she said.

“What’s a moth?” Friedel asked, crinkling up her face.

Mien shook her head calmly. “No, I am a Moth, a resident in the Hall of Wingéd. I have been assigned to take you there. What is your name?”

“You’ve been assigned to me, and you don’t know my name?” Friedel quirked a quizzical eyebrow.

Mien chuckled, her soft voice explaining, “It helps create a more natural bond between us.”

“Oh… well, I’m Friedel McBride.”

“It is very nice to meet you, Friedel,” Mien replied with a bow. “Now, please follow me.” She motioned toward the door. “I have a few things to do before I take you to the Hall.”

Friedel followed her down the dark hallway to the stairs where sunlight from the window made the rest of the house seem more cheery than Friedel knew it to be. It looked different somehow. “Has time passed?”

Mien kept on her path. “I come immediately after I am summoned, but when I enter the world of the Living, I like to make a few weeks pass. Your mother likes to clean when she’s upset?”

“Yeah,” Friedel answered, looking around the room seeing how everything had been rearranged, upgraded, cleaned, shined, vacuumed, and polished. The floor on which she had bled was replaced. “She’s a total neat freak. Any time I piss her off she cleans… I guess I should start speaking in past tense now.”

The Moth marveled at the home running her fingers along the mahogany banister. “It is very nice.” She walked past the foyer at the bottom of the stairs, through the den, and into the kitchen.

Mrs. McBride sat rubbing her puffy eyes at the table with a cup of coffee in hand. The steam swirled around in the breeze created by the Moth and the soul. She looked up from reading her paper and, feeling a chill, glanced at the back door. Although Mien walked straight up to her, Mrs. McBride looked straight through her.

“Friedel?” Mrs. McBride whispered softly.

Mien grinned. “This is my favorite part.”

“Mom?” She asked Mien, “What are you going to do?”

“Just watch.” Mien blew toward the back door, and the deep sound of the wind chimes hanging directly outside the door rang out a gentle welcome. As she cupped her hands together, a light within Mien’s eyes danced, her hands producing a soft glow. When she opened them, the light faded into a little brown, white, and gray moth resting on her fingers. “Isn’t it precious?”

Mien blew into her hands to make the little moth fly. It flew around Mrs. McBride twice as if it were trying to catch her attention. She turned her head around wildly until it flew directly onto the rim of her coffee cup. “Oh my…” she said.

“What’s the point of that?” Friedel watched her mom sit; the older woman, nearly brought to tears by the little moth, stared with such love.

“In old religions, the moth returning to its home is a sign that your soul has passed on to safety,” Mien replied, never taking her eyes off of Mrs. McBride’s face.

Mrs. McBride got up and rushed over to the phone. So hurried, her fingers hit the wrong buttons, and she had to start over. Eventually, she reached Friedel’s step-father, “Honey, the moth is here.”

“Mr. McBride has never been much of a believer, but I feel his relief.”

“That’s good. So… what now?”

“I am to take you to the Hall of Wingéd. Your mother summoned us, so I will take you there,” Mien answered, basking in the delight of her handy work. It was wonderful to see how happy one little moth had made the older woman.

“And if I don’t want to go?”

Mien didn’t hesitate to tell her, “You move on, but there is no guarantee to where you will go or if you will go. There is no guide to retrieve you, and the world of the Living is a very dangerous place for a soul.”

“Well, then remind me to thank my mom when it’s her time,” Friedel remarked with a smirk in her mother’s direction. “Thanks, Mom.”

“Your mom thought you were meant for more things than to just move on. She loves you, and she will sit here with the moth for a while. It will bring her joy, just as you did.”

“You can’t possibly mean me. I caused my mother nothing but grief.” Friedel crossed her arms.

Mien leaned over and whispered in her ear, “She certainly looks happy now.”

Mrs. McBride seemed to agree as she leaned over the countertop watching the little insect walk along the rim of the mug.

Friedel cleared her throat, “So, are we going to go or not?”

“Patience. We’re outside of time. I suggest you enjoy these moments while they last,” Mien directed. “Maybe this will become your favorite part too.”

Friedel huffed, slowly unfolding her arms and resting her hands in the pockets of her denim jacket as she fidgeted.

“New souls are always in such a hurry to know things and go places. Just relax. Watch.” Mien lifted her arms and spread her wings. A light appeared just above her head and suddenly, the scenery changed.

“May I say that is,” Friedel remarked, clamping her eyes shut while trying to settle the back flips in her stomach, “one weird way of traveling? Is it possible to get some supernatural Dramamine?”

“As I said, you will get used to it.” Mien replied, as she placed a hand on Friedel’s shoulder. “Take a look, Friedel. We have arrived.”

Friedel opened her eyes from her secured wince. The scene she saw nearly caused her to fall to her knees. The mountains around her sang so profoundly in their majesty, she felt lightheaded. The vibrations rumbled underneath her feet as she viewed the hallowed place, wondering how something as plain and unbeautiful to the eye as the bare rock could instill such emotions strong enough to cause the beholder to weep. The barren brown cliffs towering around her jut out into the sky as if displaying all the power that lay behind them and within them. She was up so high that the mist from a river down below flowing in between the rocks made it impossible to see through to the bottom.

Far beyond the mountains, Friedel saw a vast forest where she could see birds aloft just above the high stretched trees. Their calls echoed for miles until they reached her and the Moth, who looked on with a subtle smile.

She slowly turned in transfixion upon the Hall of Wingéd carved into the mountain. The stone was polished and flashed brilliantly in the sun’s light. The patterns swirled in four large columns like marble atop outstretching steps leading up to the structure. The columns held up the rocky overhang as if in protection of a statue in the center.

The statue of a creature stood in the middle just ahead of the door. It had three sets of feathered wings spread out, thrusting the body, which looked to be human, forward into the sky holding an exceptional sword pointing forward at them and over the cliff. And yet, the creature looked away from the cliff with a serene expression. Flowing robes covered the body, giving the illusion of flight and freedom.

A final turn brought her enamored glance over toward the tallest cliff in sight with an empty pedestal, mere inches from the side.

An involuntary sigh burst from Friedel’s lungs. Mien smiled at Friedel’s novice expression. “Welcome, Friedel, to the Hall of Wingéd.”

“Glad to be here,” she replied bringing her hand to her forehead to brush her hair away, “It’s amazing!”

Friedel turned back toward the Hall and pointed. “Mien, what… what is that?”

“’That is a Seraph, the highest Angel in our Hall.”

Squinting, Friedel asked for her to clarify, “But, I thought that you weren’t an Angel.”

“That is correct. I am a Moth, but there are Angel Wingéd in our Hall.” Mien glanced around. “It is almost time.”

“Time for what?” Friedel asked, now oddly obsessed with the pedestal. “What is that?”

Mien seemed delighted with Friedel’s curiosity. “You will find all the answers to your questions shortly. In a few moments, the Hall will be open to you, and you will meet our Seraph.”

“Does that mean there are other Seraphs and other Halls?” Friedel asked as she shifted her weight to the left after the shock had worn off.

“Seraphim and you’ll know in time…” Mien closed her eyes, and Friedel started to feel nauseous again, but as Mien had said, it was becoming less severe.

The sun moved from its original point, fixed at midmorning, to late evening, and Mien and Friedel were surrounded by people. They looked around as confused as she was and each one stood next to a Moth. She stopped when the woman at the front, standing next to the statue, caught her eye.

Dressed in white robes, with a rope tied at her waist, she stood with her hands folded silently as she watched the clamor. She was older looking with short golden hair and an authoritative expression that made the slight lines in her face deepen. Three sets of gold-tipped, white feathered wings were folded behind her back. “Seraph…” Friedel whispered under her breath.

The noise ceased when all the Moths amongst them bowed and held their positions. Stunned by the action, all polite banter from the souls stopped. A few others attempted to mimic the bow, but the Seraph nodded a response before they could get it right.

“Dear children, I am Seraph Ethirva, and welcome to the Hall of Wingéd.

“As a Candidate Wingéd, your time here will be grueling, but those who succeed will be rewarded. First, you must learn the way of the Wingéd. You will learn our hierarchy, our rituals, and what we do. Second, you must lose the weight of your life to take the Leap.” The Seraph had obviously recited this speech many times as she repeated the words in a professional fashion with just enough charisma to keep minds from wandering.

Hesitantly, a hand rose. She acknowledged him with another nod of her head and short wave of her hand. “All questions will be answered in time.” She smiled reassuringly and continued her speech. “You must lose the weight of your life before you take the Leap.” She directed her audience’s attention to the pedestal. “It’s a long drop over one hundred thousand meters high before you hit the ground.”

“Jesus…” Friedel whispered, but shut her lip immediately, hoping she hadn’t just committed a form of blasphemy.

“You do this by examining your life and taking from it the lessons it had to teach you. Every one of you will take the Leap, but… a word of caution. If you have not lost enough, if not all, of the weight of your life, your soul will be lost.”

“Tough break…” Friedel whispered to herself as she stared at her shoes, digging aimlessly into the dirt.

“But don’t worry, we make sure that everyone has enough time before taking the Leap.” The Seraph talked through the mumbles of worry deftly. “Now, let us continue our little tour.”

She picked up her robes to prevent them from dragging on the stone floor and directed them up the steps. “Through these doors is the courtyard. There we will find the very center of our Hall with several corridors and stairways.” She walked through the large wooden door which creaked and beckoned the Candidates and Moths to follow.

Friedel noticed that the color of the stone changed once they actually entered the courtyard from a warm and dull brown to cold light gray. The floor and walls were smooth, and columns, only slightly smaller than the ones outside, rose to the sky. The door was little more than a gateway as there was no ceiling and plenty of light shined down into the mountain pass where the Hall was situated.

There were three sets of stairs the same brown color as the outside that lead up into the surrounding peaks. That would be a lot of walking, Friedel thought.

The Seraph continued her speech once everyone had entered the courtyard. “These stairs lead up to the dormitories, and the doors to the far left lead to the hallway where there are offices and larger classrooms.”

Friedel, keeping herself occupied, whispered to herself once again, “Great. I love me some book-learnin’.”

But then, some girl in front of her turned her head and in an angered, but hushed voice scolded her. “Do you mind? Some of us are trying to pay attention. Think to yourself.”

Friedel frowned, more in irritation than for making her fellow Candidate Wingéd upset with her remarks. “Sorry.”

The Seraph didn’t skip a single beat. “The large door to your right will be the library and my office. The stairs to the left of that, lead down to more offices and other specialized room, and they become tunnels out to the forest, but we will not be doing a detailed tour of today. So, if you will all just follow me to the dormitories now…”

They all followed without a word like ducklings following in two little rows, but Friedel stopped before she reached the stairs. Curiosity bid her question, “Mien, what is that door?”

Mien looked to see the worn, but formerly ornately carved and decorated door directly across from the gateway. The Seraph had discussed nothing about it, and it seemed odd to Friedel that she would go through each of the other doors, leaving it out. It was terribly unlikely that she would forget a part of her speech that she could probably recite backwards and forwards in her sleep.

“You will learn… in time.”

Friedel pursed her lips together in disappointment.

Mien placed her hand on Friedel’s back. “Patience is a virtue,” she said, giving Friedel a slight push toward the stairs so they wouldn’t fall behind.

Several flights up, they reached a bare cavern with only a fork in the stairs. “The stairs on the right lead to the Candidate Wingéd dormitories. The stairs to the left are the Angel Wingéd rooms. We won’t be going to see these, but in case of an emergency, this stairwell will lead you there. Now, I must assign you to your rooms. How many of them are there?”

A man dressed in a beige tunic and brown pants, with a chiseled jaw and white, gold-tipped, and feathered wings answered her, “Fifteen, Seraph.”

“That’s a good number. Small, but a good number.” She nodded thoughtfully and continued up the stairs.

Friedel prayed that it wouldn’t be too much longer as she grunted up each elevated strip of stone, but another ten flights later, their climb reached an exhaustive end.

Once everyone was up, the Seraph walked through the crowd and assigned everyone by pointing. She got to Friedel and frowned, furrowing her brow and looking over at Mien. Then, she said, “Fourth door.”

Friedel turned to her Moth, “Is that good?”

“It is a room assignment. Angels are empathic, but the Seraph is telepathic. She is categorizing you based on personality, so it is unlikely you’ll have any problems,” Mien explained. “Every Candidate Wingéd goes through this. I will still be here for any questions that you might have.”

“One final thing,” the Seraph quickly regained attention of the room, “your first class will be tomorrow morning at dawn. Please remember to be punctual.” She gave a slight nod, to which the Moths bowed in that weird way they did. She turned and descended the stairs without another word.

The original clamor returned within moments as Candidate Wingéd looked around for others that might be in their rooms. Mien caught Friedel’s attention before she had a chance to become lost in the sea of human souls. “Friedel, this is where we say good-bye.”

Friedel smiled, relenting. “I figured.”

“You are very observant.” Mien gave Friedel a hug. “If you require some more of my guidance, I will be here, but I encourage you to get to know your roommates and learn from them. Good luck, my friend.”

“Uh… thanks for everything. You’ve been really nice to me.” Friedel was reluctant to leave to her room like most of the others were doing.

“That is why I am a Moth. Have a pleasant night.” Mien bowed and stepped backwards to leave.

Friedel panicked for a moment. “Er… Mien! Wait. How will I find you if I have questions? Or if I need you?”

“I will find you. We Moths are good at that.” Finally, Mien made it to the stairs and descended them. Friedel stared in that direction, hoping that, by not looking away, she wouldn’t feel so much like she was floundering.

She sighed. She was used to such floundering through her life, but then again, this wasn’t her life. This, she guessed, would be her afterlife, full of frightening yet grand opportunities. She walked through the hallway and stopped at door with a purple four painted on it. She turned the knob and looked inside.

“Welcome to room number four!” a voice rang out.

Friedel nearly jumped onto the ceiling, gripping her chest. “Jesus, you scared me half to death!” she told the voice’s owner, a girl who had dyed her hair blue and was lying in the bottom bunk of one of the four beds in the room next to the window made of thick glass.

“Sorry, but in case you didn’t know, you’re already dead,” she quipped.

“Thanks for the news flash. It was just an expression.” As she investigated the room, Friedel found two other, quieter, girls. One was blonde and sat at a table near the door. She hunched over her books with grand intent but glanced up at her long enough to give a forced smile.

The other girl, who looked just as shaky as Friedel did, sat down on the other bottom bunk to steady herself. She had raven black hair and a small frame reminiscent of her mother’s. “So, I guess you’re my new roommates?”

The blue-haired girl snorted. “Being the senior Candidate Wingéd here, I’d say you’re my new roommate.” She rolled and stood up. The bracelets on her wrists jangled noisily as she held her hand out. “I’m Advora. Over there is Mecedu.”

“Do you only have the first name? Like Cher?” she asked, glancing at each one for a few seconds before looking over the other one.

“Eventually, you’ll go without your surname.” Friedel lifted an eyebrow, so Advora just continued, “It’ll be all in the handbook.”

“Good to know…” Friedel quickly became preoccupied watching the other new girl, who was so busy examining the blanket on the bunk bed she almost didn’t respond to Friedel’s question. “Hey, what’s your story?”

The last woman in the room looked as if she were about to cry as she ran her fingers across the intricate lavender stitching in the shapes of daisies. “I had blankets just like this at home… They’re so real like they got my very blankets and brought them here… as if they knew that I wanted them. How could they have known that?”

Advora sat back down on her bed, making sure not to bang her head on the bunk above belonging to Mecedu. “They do that to smooth the transition. They give you one thing from your life to keep and hold onto.”

Mecedu huffed from the table without looking up from the book she’d been reading. “It’s a dangerous move if you ask me. How is someone supposed to be able to lose the weight of their life if they have something like that to hold onto? It’s completely ludicrous. No wonder they’ve been losing more souls to the Leap.”

“It’s better than having nothing to ground them so they hold onto their lives more vigorously,” Advora snapped, as if they’d had this very debate several times before. She leaned over to Friedel. “She’s not usually this crabby.”

Friedel shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me any. She can be crabby all she wants. By the way, I’m Friedel McBride.”

Once again, Mecedu huffed from the table.

Advora leaned farther over toward the other bunk bed. “What about you, sweetheart? What’s your name?”

“Ruth. Ruth Ng,” she declared softly, choking back a few tears.

In that moment, Friedel’s expression changed. She knew that name. “Gran? Grandma Ruth?”

The young woman looked up, recognizing the name, like she had been longing to hear it for ages. “Friedel McBride? That was my granddaughter’s name.” She gazed over at Friedel, who stared back.

She wasn’t her grandmother as Friedel remembered, but under closer examination, she appeared just like a younger version of her mother. Her hair was black and textured, but curly just like Friedel’s. Her almond eyes were gorgeous and sparkled even in the dim lighting. She saw so much of herself in this woman. Her nose was delicately pointed; her chin etched at a lovely angle. There was no doubt in her mind anymore. “How is this possible?” Friedel asked Advora.

“When you die, and especially when becoming a Candidate Wingéd, we’ll just say your best foot is put forward.” Advora stated looking at the resemblance between the two of them.

“I never really got to know you. You had Alzheimer’s as far back as I could remember,” Friedel said absently. “We didn’t even visit, because it would upset me that you didn’t know my name. After a while, you didn’t even know Mom’s name.”

“Yes… I remember now,” Ruth replied, the fact reflecting in her face at once. “I guess this would be a second chance to get to know each other.”

Friedel straightened and cleared her throat. “It’s very nice to meet you, Ruth.”

CH. 2

Friedel didn’t remember ever falling asleep, but she was awakened by the rustling of her roommates before the sun had even risen. “Good, you’re up,” Advora stated from in front of a mirror hidden by the door, “You were out quicker than a Bat Wingéd last night, I’ll tell you.”

Still groggy, Friedel rubbed her eyes, rolled out of her bunk, and fell the four feet to the floor, landing with a dry thud. “Ugh! I guess pain isn’t lost on the dead.” She groaned and glanced about at the room. “Hey, where’s Ruth?”

“She left for first class at a quarter past. Speaking of which, shouldn’t you be there too? It’s supposed to start at dawn,” Advora mumbled with a pin in her mouth.

Hoping to get to her feet, Friedel grabbed the bed post and pulled. “Well, if someone would have woken me up, I would have left with Ruth.”

“Not my fault. You very colorfully told us to mind our own business, so we left you alone. Do you need me to take you to the courtyard? That’s where first class is always held.”

Friedel, while rubbing the back of her head, grunted out, “Yeah, sure.”

As they walked down the steps, their footfalls could be heard bouncing off the walls. Everyone else had already risen to start their days, leaving the corridors empty. Friedel held the railing bolted into the mountain cautiously, but Advora rushed down the stairs without a care in the world. There seemed to be even more stairs than there were the day before, but a gentle breeze from the vents to the surface made the trip down, what would be the stuffy stairwell, much more pleasant.

Tripping her way down in Advora’s wake, Friedel pondered the woman’s past. If her grandmother, who had been an old wrinkled woman when she died, could look as young as she did, she had to wonder how old the rest of the people she had met really were. What their lives had been like. “Advora?”

“Yes?” she replied without blinking or pausing at the next stair.

“How old are you?” Friedel tilted her head to try and see Advora’s face better as she was still a few steps ahead of her.

She smirked. “Well, aren’t you just breaking all the rules of womanhood?”

“Uh… sure, why not?” Friedel shrugged and took the next stair. “I was just curious about your life. I saw my grandmother… Nevermind, I guess.” Friedel was surprisingly meek for her usual brusque and defiant character, but for some reason, she felt ashamed for even thinking about it.

Advora seemed to sense this and brushed it off like nothing. “I was forty-three when I died. Heart attack. A very American twenty-first century death. Too much spam and eggs. I dropped right in my kitchen in front of my husband and two sons.”

“You don’t seem like–.”

“Like I would be that old?”

“No, like it bothers you that much.”

“It shouldn’t bother me, considering I’m to take the Leap soon. And as my mother used to say, ‘you can either fight the current until you exhaust yourself, or you can ride the wave.’ Just go to this class, and everything will become quite clear. Have a good day!” They finally reached the bottom of the steps. Friedel could see all the rest of her Candidate class waiting in front of the door that the Seraph had neglected to address in the beginning.

“Great…” She scanned for Ruth, but before she could find her, she caught sight of a man standing at the steps in front of the old door. He was a handsome man, and she recognized him as the same one who had stood by the Seraph’s side the day before. She remembered his considerable height, square jaw, short brown hair, and broad shoulders. He didn’t have trouble grabbing the attention of Friedel, who was awestruck by him.

A hush fell upon the Candidates, and he began a spiel undoubtedly as practiced as the Seraph’s. “Thank you. On behalf of all Wingéd here at the Hall, I want to welcome you. My name is Angel Thrace, and I will be one of three teachers that you will have on your journey to becoming Wingéd. In my class, we will be introducing the various Wingéd types. You’ll be learning how to identify each of us, the special abilities we posses, what we do, and about the sub-cultures that exist within our society.

“But first, I will introduce you to the reason we are all here. In a few moments, we will be entering what we at the Hall call the SpiritPass. I urge you not to touch anything you might see behind these doors. Be sure to move slowly, that means no sudden movements. Some of the Spirits within the pass are dangerous and will attempt to harm you if you provoke them. Be sure to follow these simple rules, and you’ll have an unforgettable experience.”

Thrace took a dark, rusty key from the pocket inside his left sleeve, placed it into the matching lock on the door, and turned it. The door creaked, and its echo only increased the volume of the courtyard. No one moved before Thrace addressed the seemingly empty pass, “Spirits, I beseech thee. We are unworthy of your grace, but please!” he shouted, “Allow us to walk safely among you. Send us a sign of your permission.”

Friedel glanced into the pass, but couldn’t see anything. She smirked. “There’s nothing in there.”

Immediately, she heard a throng of, “Sssshhh!!!”

“Sorry,” she replied, scrunching up her face.

Without warning, a puff of smoke came down from the ether. In a rough outline, it looked like a butterfly. A gust of wind blew away some of the extra smoke, and the Spirit landed on one of the burly shoulders of Angel Thrace. Friedel could hear the light gasps circulating through the Candidate Wingéd as they first laid eyes upon the most delicate bit of smoke they had ever seen. It was so beautiful in the most innocent way; she smiled like a school girl as the Spirit lightly flapped its wings.

“This is what it’s all about, everyone. That emotion you are feeling deep in your heart, in your soul.” He shouted away from the shoulder upon which the Spirit rested, holding out his hand. “This is what being Wingéd is all about. Now, is everyone ready to step inside? Which brave soul is willing to go first?”

Everyone in front hesitated, but those behind urged them forward. Friedel watched with caution and was the last one to enter just ahead of Thrace.

She was stunned though she wasn’t two feet into the pass. She had stumbled into an amazing botanical garden. Exotic tropical ferns covered the ground where the stone had turned into warm, damp dirt, and a delightfully fragrant aroma wafted in the air. Vibrant flowers climbed up the trunks of trees which also served as perches for the smoke-like Spirits.

Some looked like birds, others hung upside down like bats. In the distance, Friedel could see what looked like a Pegasus sail across the new morning sky. “Oh my God…”

“Yeah,” Thrace replied in a low breathy voice, “I felt the same way my first time in the SpiritPass.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Am I allowed to say that?” Friedel unconsciously put her hand over her mouth, half embarrassed he had caught her and half honored he stopped to say something to her at all.

Thrace shrugged then crossed his arms. “Besides, the whole taking the Lord’s name in vain thing, nah, it’s fine.”

“So, there… is a God, then?”

He shrugged again, “That’s not really up to me to tell you. We like to keep things ambiguous, but… everything will become clear when you take the Leap.”

“Y’know, everyone keeps talking about this Leap we’re supposed to be taking, but nobody is doing any explaining. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants some answers, or even the right to ask questions without being dismissed like that.” Friedel cocked her head to the side. “So… when do we get to stop being the fragile-minded Candidate Wingéd and on our way to this Leap of yours?”

Thrace smirked. “You are a very straightforward kind of person, aren’t you? You’ll just have to find out with the rest of your group.”

“You’re just going to dismiss me again then. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to tell me when we’ll be finding out.” Friedel prodded and pried her way through to the answer.

Thrace donned a smile. He addressed the rest of the group in the pass in strong guiding tones. “So, you’re probably wondering, what does this have to do with anything? Well, let me be the first to explain it to you. The Spirits you see around are where your wings will come from. They will become the guardians of your souls. They will allow you to crossover to the human world. What you do from there will depend on which Spirit chooses you.

“When it is time, you will stand on the pedestal and take the Leap. You will fall until a Spirit from the SpiritPass emerges to save you. The Spirit makes the ultimate sacrifice for your eternal life. Your soul will merge with the Spirit’s essence, and you will gain your wings, becoming one of us. Roughly, that is what happens, and that is what you’re working towards,” Thrace said, stunning the group of fifteen into a reverent silence.

Even Friedel acted as if she had just been scolded by her parents for not having enough respect. Thrace had not been showing them some living dead graveyard, but the only thing that would save them from being a lost soul. The proverbial slap in the face was well deserved.

Friedel crossed her arms and shifted back and forth on her feet, listening. “I’ll allow you a few more minutes to take in the entirety of the SpiritPass, then we’ll be moving on to the handbook.”

The group returned to their activities in a fog. Friedel would have much rather hung back and watched everyone else commune with the Spirits, but Thrace put his hand on her shoulder and pushed her forward.

She tried her best not to feel awkward as she walked through the ferns and other brush. Her eyes scanned the group looking for Ruth. She spotted her on the fringes but was too far to get to without a nice jog, so she continued her walk around, pretending to feel the importance of this exercise.

“It’s so beautiful.” A scrawny looking young man nearby gazed wide-eyed at his surroundings. “Doesn’t it just make you want to cry?”

Friedel snorted. “I don’t cry.”

“Wasn’t talking to you, but that’s a shame. Sometimes we all need a good cry,” he said with a grin.

“Aren’t you the sensitive one…?” Friedel frowned and let her voice trail off. She turned away from him and continued communing in the other direction back toward the door.

“My name is Michael Payton. What’s yours?” He followed her without a grain of poise in his bony form.

Slightly annoyed but tolerant for the time being, she replied truthfully, “Friedel McBride, or just Friedel. My roommate told me we drop the last name eventually.” She paused after she found a very large Bird Spirit sitting on a branch.

“It’s a pretty name,” he said before tripping over a rock and landing with his face in the dirt.

Friedel placed her hands on her hips. “Swift one, Slick.”

Then, the Bird Spirit looked her way and started chittering. It spread its wings to full span and even hissed. She stepped backwards while Michael brushed himself off. “Sorry, Spirit.” Friedel gave a little nod, and the Bird Spirit flew away.

“What did you do?”

“I don’t know.”

Ruth cleared her throat behind them. “Putting your hands on your hips in front of someone of higher rank than you, which for us is basically everyone, including the Spirits, is a sign of deep disrespect.”

“How do you know?” Michael asked, brushing the dead leaves and dirt from his clothing.

“Thrace just handed out the handbooks. We’re supposed to gather now.” She pointed with the volume in hand over toward the door.

As they approached, Thrace had already started, “Before we start discussing the Wingéd there are a couple ground rules. First, never touch anyone’s wings without permission. Second, while we are visiting other Wingéd please refrain from wandering off by yourself. There are some dangerous things that lie within these walls ranging from other Wingéd to Actuals.

“The Hall is home to eight different types of Wingéd. They are Angel, Dragon, Phoenix, Pegasus, Fairy, Pixie, Bird, Butterfly, Moth, and Bat. This is our basic hierarchy. A Wingéd’s rank corresponds with their type, so it’s important to use your observation skills to learn to identify them. Now, as they say, what better place to start than the beginning? We’ll start with Angel Wingéd.”

In a quick motion, he turned around, raised his arms, and spread his white wings out wide, stretching them to their full length several inches beyond his fingertips. Some of the Candidates in the front leaned backwards, intimidated by the sheer size and luminosity of the wings that flashed before them, but Friedel looked on with interest. She squinted against the brightness and saw the feathers were edged with just a millimeter of gold which glistened like the sun’s reflection on the water.

Angel Thrace turned around pleased with the reaction. “You’ll soon find out that there are many Wingéd within the Hall who possess wings with feathers. Feathered wings come in a variety of colors, sizes, and back positions. We Angel Wingéd are easy to identify, because all of our wings look the same. They are large with white feathers tipped with gold. Any questions so far?”

Friedel, with her arms still crossed and shifting back and forth on her feet, lifted a hand.

“Yes, in the back. Oh, please say your names when called upon so I can learn them.”

“Uhm, Friedel. So, my Moth told me that the Seraph was an Angel. Why does she have six wings?”

Thrace nodded. “That’s a great question. After becoming an Angel, the Seraph goes through two other transformations where he or she is chosen by other Angel Spirits here in the pass. Any other questions?”

Out of turn, Friedel blurted out. “So, she takes the Leap three times?”

Thrace seemed very uncomfortable talking about it, like she’d knocked the wind of out of him, but answered, “What?! No. No, no. The Leap is only to be done once. You will never, for any reason, have to do it more than once.”

Friedel almost felt bad for asking, but she was getting tired of feeling guilty for voicing what surely everyone wanted to know. But her teacher started staring at her in a way she could hardly interpret, his eyes seeming to search her. Soon, she felt her irritation and even her self-reproach began to dissipate.

“As Candidate Wingéd you will come into contact with Angels more than any other. Angels fulfill a multitude of duties in and outside of the Hall. Within these walls, Angels perform four tasks. You have teachers, like me, counselors like Dyson and Malene, whom you will meet later, archivists in the library, and administrators like the Seraph.” Thrace glanced up at Friedel with the word “Seraph” escaping from his mouth and had difficulty concealing a smirk. “At any time, you may address any of these Angels, and we will help you to the best of our ability. More than anything, we want you succeed and flourish here. And never hesitate to ask us questions.

“So, Friedel, what else did your Moth Wingéd tell you about Angels?”

Wrapping her arms more tightly around herself, while the others turned to gape, she sighed as she spoke. “Just that you’re all empathic.”

“Do you know what that means?”

“Not really.”

Ruth raised one hand while her handbook rested open in the other. “Ruth Ng, sir. It means that you can read and influence emotions.”

“That’s good, you’re already reading your handbook.” Raising the red bound volume over his head, he announced to the class. “This book is going to become your new best friend. By the end of this class, you will be able to recite from it backwards and forwards. Have I forgotten anything, Ruth?”

Ruth ran her finger down the page. “Guiding Angels.”

“Yes. Good. Guiding Angels, sometimes called guardian Angels, are the only Angels that work outside the Hall. Every guiding Angel is assigned to a future Wingéd. That would be you guys. And they followed from birth all the way to your death.”

“Can we meet them?”

Thrace laid eyes on Friedel again. “Afraid not. Guardian Angel Wingéd tend to be more solitary and antisocial than most, so they’ve already been reassigned. But worry not. There are plenty of other Angels for you to meet around the Hall.

“Now I will give you some time to study and familiarize yourself with your new best friend. And remember to take some more time to commune with the Spirits. You are dismissed. And don’t forget, your second class with Angel Dyson starts at noon. He hates it when people are late, so don’t be.”

As the class started to disburse again, Angel Thrace handed out the rest of the handbooks. Friedel tucked her hands deep in her pockets as she waited in the short line to receive her book. With every one he handed out, Thrace tried to learn each name, but as she approached, he had no trouble remembering her name, thrusting the book at her. “And last but not least, Friedel.”

She accepted it with a sheepish grin. “Uh oh, I’m in trouble if you know my name already.”

“Oh, you’re not in trouble, but I have a feeling I’m going to be. I’ve never been interrogated quite like that before. But you asked a lot of intelligent questions.”

Friedel had never been accused of being intelligent before and examined the red leather-bound book. “Well, thanks for the book.”

“If you have any more questions feel free to ask me.”

“Even after today?”

Thrace chuckled. “Especially after today.”

As he walked away, Friedel’s eyes lingered over him, trying to decipher the meaning behind his words and the distinct impression he’d left her. She placed the book to her chest and pulled up a rock to read it.

 

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