Unknown to humanity, Earth was not a simple planet. It was rather a host to five interlinked realms, with the lone realm visible to humans being known as the Mortal Realm. Above and below the Mortal Realm were two mysterious dimensions famous in legend but never truly proven to any living human. The two sides of the afterlife, Paradise above and Inferno below.
If any average human was asked to describe Paradise and Inferno, they would parrot the same lies that had been recycled to humanity by mischievous fae for millennia.
Paradise, the world of the divine. Positioned high into the sky, a beautiful world sat on top of fluffy clouds where winged babies played the harp all day.
Inferno, a flaming abyss filled to the brim with berserk creatures of darkness. Ruled by a big red monster with a forked tail, who tortured souls with maniacal laughter.
Any birdfolk or fiend would laugh in their face at these descriptions.
Paradise was a realm of the divine, however it was not built on top of a floor with the consistency of cotton candy, nor were the young birdfolk fledglings taught the harp religiously. Music was just as treasured as the art of fighting however, with marble structures dedicated for fierce battles not for conquest but joy.
Inferno’s moniker was possibly completely in error, for there were no raging flames, no souls being tossed to the fire. Rather it resembled a massive prison, with a grandiose castle surrounded by thousands of cells. And perhaps there was a particularly dark corner where the Warden locked away particularly malicious souls that had morphed into twisted fiends.
This trio of realms were ultimately owned by one almighty creature. Humans would refer to Him as the Creator. The other races would label Him the Avian King, for He had crafted a race of servants from His favourite creation, the birds. The birdfolk of Paradise called Him Father.
However on one particularly lovely day, a certain birdman found himself forsaking all three of those beloved titles.
“I can’t believe you fucked it up, again!”
“How dare you address your father this way!” a harsh voice shrieked in response, echoing from every corner of the throne room with such a force that the young maids almost dropped their plates. Their wings bristled as they flitted back out of the room, peering their heads through the door to observe the scene at a safe distance. The scene was not a rarity to see, the four noble birdfolk kneeling by the Avian King’s talons, where He perched upon His throne. However this time, the crown prince wasn’t kneeling.
It would be impossible to mistake Nikolaos; distinctive plumage, raven black feathers that became violet wings splashed with cyan, and youthful beauty akin to a Greek marble sculpture. Another unmistakable trait was his temper, the fire that raged under the surface of his soft facade. That internal fire flared up as he glared at the all powerful being with an angry flush to his dusky skin, snapping back at him. “How dare I- You summoned a giant lightning bird in the middle of a human village! Do you have any idea how hard it is to erase the memories of 100 humans at once, when they’re running and screaming?”
“This wouldn’t be an issue if we just decided to let humans know we exist,” Callixtus piped up, a tired frown on his face as he watched the Avian King seethe. With his large eagle wings and muscular body, he destroyed any delusional preconceptions that enemies held about healers being weak.
The god’s rage echoed, and the maids swiftly fled, leaving His complaints to fall on deaf ears. “I’ve told you four, how many times? Humans must not know of the existence of the divine! Man can not truly follow free will under the knowledge they are being judged for their actions!”
The other two noble birdfolk exchanged glances and sighed before returning their gazes to their Father. Birds having swiftly become the ancient being’s favourite creation, He had taken the form of a beautiful and powerful phoenix. However despite His wise visage, the callousness in His voice often shone through. Which was why the four of them existed, to assist Him in the management of His universe and repair any amateur mistakes He would not admit to making.
Niko, Ikarus and Alexia loved Him like their Father and so had happily settled into their appointed roles upon reaching maturity. Callixtus had never formed that familial bond with Him but respected and served Him nevertheless, naturally catching His curiosity with the unpredictable ability to heal and becoming the fourth noble birdfolk. However the four of them were still often tired of what Ikarus had started calling ‘cock ups’ after spending too much time watching modern humans.
“How did you manage such a mistake anyway, Father?” Alexia asked, berry red eyes blinking slowly as feathers the same colour rustled. She was the sole female in their quartet, however had grown to develop the brighter, male associated colours of her inspired species, the summer tanager.
Before the Avian King could respond, Niko sniped in. “Oh no, it wasn’t a ‘mistake’, was it? Is that what you’re about to say? Because of course your perfect self could not make an error! That would be complete heresy!”
“You’re committing complete heresy!” He snapped back, His glowing eyes flashing from blue to red. “Forbid I make mistakes like everyone else does, you’re no different, son!”
As the air grew thick, Alexia and Callixtus stepped back and bowed their heads in resignation, Ikarus rolled his eyes and withdrew into his auburn cocoon of feathers. He knew exactly what his older brother was doing, when everyone knew far too well that the sunbird prince was the one being that the Avian King became a complete pushover with. Perhaps having clear favouritism towards your children did that.
“It’s more than a ‘mistake’ at this point, I think you’re going senile by now, you old goose!”
And with that childish insult, Callixtus and Alexia both buried their faces in their hands. They could feel the cold heat blazing from the phoenix, before He launched a threatening swipe of the talons at Niko, watching him hop backwards before stumbling onto his clothed posterior. “To Inferno with you, now, until I say you can return,” He growled, fiery wings swooping back menacingly.
As his fellow birdfolk watched him with exhaustion, Niko stormed out of the throne room before smirking to himself.
Just as planned.
The Warden’s helpers did not need to guide Niko to his cell as he navigated the underworld, the prince was guided completely by his own muscle memory. The exposed claws of his feet tapped across the hot stone without a flinch, and he smiled as he found an empty cell with his name carved into the wall. Paying no heed to the screaming echoing around him, he perched on the soft bed. Since the first time he had ended up down there, he had wound up in the same cell every time, to the point the fiends that the Warden enlisted had ultimately just marked it down as reserved on their paperwork. It certainly saved them having to guide him so far out from the centre of the underworld, when their flight abilities were pathetic compared to his own.
He glanced at the cell across from him, a slumbering human soul resting on the bed. Or she had once been human. Inferno’s souls were constantly on rotation, with every sinning human ending up down here. Every soul served a ‘sentence’, depending on the severity of their sins. Thankfully if a human simply forgot to return their library books, they would rest for eternity in Purgatory, home for the neutrally aligned. It was to Purgatory that souls would go to after serving their sentences, provided it did not exceed a certain amount of time.
After too long in such a negative place, the human soul would twist. The woman across from him had been there for three centuries, if he recalled correctly, and now she resembled a vampire. Such a creature would be a danger to the human souls in Purgatory so they would return to Earth after their sentence, provided they retained their sanity.
He sensed the man before he saw him, hearing the rustle of feathers faint as the Warden approached him. The infamous birdman who had insulted the Avian King and became the first prisoner of the underworld, and its king. And despite being christened as Acacius after the beautiful flower, the Warden’s reputation preceded him.
As Ace stretched his gold and blue blended wings, Niko smiled and met him in a tight hug, feeling his friend’s feathers brush against his. Drawing away, the older birdman flashed him a familiar smirk. One of faux malice that would make any other being shrink back in fear, however it would forever remind him of the pranks that Ace would pull on him before he left Paradise. “So, how did you piss your dad off this time, Niko?”
“I called him an ‘old goose’,” he admitted, grinning as Ace laughed and sat next to him on the prison bed. Seeing the Warden show affection was something that they thought would diminish the souls’ terror at first, however they quickly found it further spooking out whichever poor soul resided in the cell across from Niko’s.
“Even I would feel a little offended, with you insulting the sacred geese like that. He must have really upset you, eh?” Ace playfully elbowed him and Niko laughed, gazing at his face. Those bright blue and violet eyes he would never let himself forget, even if his Father had thrown his childhood friend through the mortal realm and into the pit of nothingness that had later become this infinite prison. He may discourage it, but He couldn’t ban them from interacting completely when Ace had agreed to do His bidding as the Warden.
All those voiced concerns about his friend being a bad influence when it was because of His actions that he had decided to exploit the power of mischief. “I just wanted to see you again, Ace,” he confessed with none of the embarrassment or shame that he used to be haunted by, when he had purposely created abomination after abomination to enrage his Father. Their bodies had voluntarily frozen at the equivalent of 28 and 24 years respectively however their bond had continued to develop over the millennia, all those years watching the world grow together.
With that all too common sweet smile he never tired of, Ace chuckled and grasped his hand, pulling him up. “Well then, you’ve got me. My schedule’s free so let’s take you somewhere more comfortable than this cramped place, hm?” His pale hand swatted lightly at his wing, as if shooing off dust. “I know small places aren’t your favourite.”
A bashful laugh leaving him, Niko followed Ace out of the prison towards the heart of Inferno.
Niko watched the servants flit in, aquamarine eyes lighting up as he noticed what one of them was carrying. As his gaze followed the plate of cake until it was placed in his lap, trying not to salivate at the sight of it, Ace laughed and politely dismissed them, leaving the two of them alone again. “I made the servants learn to bake chocolate gateau, I still remember your face when we first tried it from a human bakery.”
“You are an angel,” the bird prince gasped, eyes not leaving the cake as he grabbed his spoon. Chuckling as he immediately dug into the sweet dessert, Ace wagged his finger in his vision forcing him to follow it to the huge unfamiliar screen hanging on the wall.
“Whilst you’re on ‘time out’, you can’t leave Inferno so I thought we might as well have some fun. Humans are obsessed with their television so I asked Arturo to do me a favour and swipe one for me.”
Niko tilted his head as he looked the object over, swallowing the chocolate cream he had shovelled into his mouth before asking. “You can’t get satellite TV in the underworld can you?”
“Nope, so he stole that for us too.” He pointed at a small box on the dresser, connected to the wall. “That’s a wifi router, so we can use it to find pretty much anything on that.” At the younger man’s puzzled face, he snickered. “Human technology has moved on a bit now, you know? The internet can be used on televisions and everything now.”
Niko gave a shudder. “I’ve not touched a television or computer since Alexia showed me a horror flick. Technology scares me.”
Grinning as he returned to his dessert, he took a bite of his own. “It has evolved a lot since the camera, eh? Remember when Amara took a photo of us? The flash scared the shit out of you!”
He blushed as he looked over at the photo in question, on the bedside unit. Their vampire acquaintance, and Ace’ ex lover, Amara had caught them by surprise, leaving them with a keepsake of their images frozen with comical expressions. “O-Oh shut it, I thought it was a gun!”
Patting his cheek soothingly, Ace flashed him a lopsided smile. “But it wasn’t, so you have to admit it was kinda funny, right? We should get her to take another one, and maybe we can drag Arty into the picture too!”
“If we can drag him away from his harem, sure,” Niko grumbled, forcing down the nausea as it rose. Their fae friend lived in his own realm, inhabited solely by himself, his servants and ever increasing number of partners. He had built it sometime after the break up with Amara to get some peace and quiet away from everyone, and the prince couldn’t blame him. He would love to be able to endlessly avoid his responsibilities like Arturo. “Maybe… Tell me that it’s not a gun this time.”
With a silent nod, the golden winged bird man squeezed his feathered shoulder. That sick feeling was replaced by lightheadedness, as he watched his blonde fringe shift with the tilt of his head. How he hated how his friend could comfort him yet make him feel ill somehow in the same brief moment. The way his body would burn in reaction to his touch, sweating in a feverish manner that somehow only he could suffer from despite being from their almighty race. Yes birdfolk felt pain, yes they could die, but they usually did not catch disease or fall ‘under the weather’. Yet the sudden rise of anxiety took the wind out of him, and he had no idea why. “We can use a mobile phone, they don’t resemble firearms at all, huh? But don’t worry, even if Amara is a bit…” He coughed into his fist. “Okay, she’s very loopy. But even then, she’s not going to hurt you, Niko.” He flashed his teeth. “Because I may not have fangs, but I’d still tear her apart for harming you.”
A quiet chuckle left him, however Niko found as he looked at his dessert that the nausea was threatening to return. Hand shaking faintly, he carefully moved the plate to the table then sat back next to Ace on the bed. What a soft blanket he could feel under his thighs, warming the exposed skin as well as the dark feathers streaking up them.
As if reading his mind, Ace moved his cake to a safe distance then gripped the edges of the blanket, wrapping it securely around his friend as he folded his wings in. Giving his body a comforting squeeze, he whispered as he ruffled his chestnut curls. “How about I put on a comedy for us? I promise, there will be no gore or guns involved.”
Niko gave a shaky nod as he watched him fiddle with a remote, illuminating the room with blue light. And feeling his friend fold his wings over them like a second blanket, he huddled into him fighting off another daydream.