Eric finished up his email and looked at the playroom. The toys had all been put away and things were cleaned up. There was little to do at the moment other than read the paper and wait for the first few children to come in.
Carolyn sat down next to him with coffee for them both. "Hey Eric, I wanted to ask you-"
The radio up in the front let out a loud tone of alarm. Eric and Carolyn stared at each other in confusion and walked out of his office to hear what was going on.
What they heard sent a chill in their blood.
"This is the Emergency Alert System. This is not a test. We repeat this is not a test. Please stand by."
Angel and human looked at each other in shock. Eric sensed that the reason behind his edginess was about to be revealed. After a few seconds a somber voice was heard.
"A nuclear strike has destroyed the city of Tel Aviv. At this time-"
What else was said was lost to the Virtue as the scream in the Symphony reached his ears. He knew that it was the sounds of humans dying at the hands of a Celestial. He clutched his head in pain as Carolyn sat transfixed in front of the radio.
The horrid disturbance to the Symphony faded to a painful, muted rumble. The music he had become used to had shifted to a darker tone. What made Eric even more worried was that he knew this would only be the beginning. The first blow had been struck and the Symphony had endured a major shift. His ears throbbed unpleasantly at the new sounds he could hear.
A touch on his shoulder brought him back to reality. Carolyn was in tears as the last part of the announcement faded. She hugged him tightly and the angel drew her close for comfort.
"What are we going to do?" she whispered.
He looked around at the quiet room and shuddered at the implications of what was coming.
"Grab blankets and food and start filling up jugs of water. Things are going to Hell quickly." The two set to work and braced themselves for what was coming.
It didn't take long for the center to get busy. Children had been let out of school within an hour of the announcement being made. Since most of them had parents at work, they began toflood into the daycare center. The younger children were in tears, the older ones were stunned into silence about what was going on. Eric and Carolyn kept their spirits up as best they could, even as more news reports came in.
The parents were pulling into the parking lot of the center almost immediately after the children arrived. People were grouped close together in fear and they made their way to the daycare building quickly.
Eric and Carolyn guided the children outside and things began to break down. Parents hugged their children close asif this would dispel the horrors that they had been listening to. Worried that some people might panic and drive out too quickly, Eric walked out to the parking lot and made sure things stayed orderly.
The Malakite passed by a van that had its windows rolled down. The driver was a bald man with dark blue tattoos running down his arms. He was involved in a conversation with the two passengers and was oblivious to Eric's presence.
"-time is perfect. We do a snatch on the kid and get her out of here while the monkeys are too scared to react."
"And what if we're caught, Braz?" This was from a woman in the back seat. "There's enough people to ID us later."
"Don't worry about that," the driver replied with an icy calm. "The Battle has begun and all the angels in this area are heading to the field. And the humans here won't fight us that badly. If they do, you're armed enough to take care of them."
Eric crept up to the passenger side and kicked the door with his boot. The sudden bang caused all three of the people inside to jump in fright.
"Excuse me," Eric said coldly. "I don't recognize you or your vehicle. You are trespassing on city property. It's time for you to leave."
The man in the passenger seat pulled out a gun and pointed it at Eric before he could react. "Bad mistake son. I'm gonna make you cry for your daddy for that."
The shots rang out and the parents in the parking lot froze. Carolyn took control of the situation and yelled at everyone to get indoors. Eric fell to the ground, quietly cursing himselff or doing something so stupid. Although the shots weren't fatal, they still hurt. He laid still and slowed his breathing down as if he was wounded.
The man who had shot him stepped out with a sneer on his face. The driver side door opened and the other two figures stepped out. The instant the man turned to address the driver, Eric lashed out. . He grabbed his wrist and twisted it violently. As the gun flew away, he stared at the man with an expression devoid of mercy.
"My ‘daddy' was an Archangel. And I haven't felt the need to go crying to him for a long time." Without another word, he broke the man's neck with a vicious twist of his hands. As the man's body fell to the ground, the woman had crossed over to see what had happened.
Eric was ready for her. He grabbed her by the throat and smacked her head against the van's side. Her eyes rolled back into her head as she crumpled to the ground. As she fell, the driver looked at the Malakite in disdain.
"Big fucking deal," he spat. "So you can hurt humans. We-OOF!"
The remainder of what he was going to say was lost as Eric drove his fist into the man's large midsection. Eric wasn't interested in wasting time talking . When he heard the name Braz, he knew what he was up against. Brazaxinis was a Djinn of Fleurity, the Demon Prince of Drugs. Any of Fleurity's servants, demon or human, fell under a special category of the Archangel of Children and his Servitors: Kill without mercy.
Angel and demon rolled on the ground, each one trying to gain an advantage. The Djinn was stronger, but Eric had more experience fighting. The Malakite was focused on pounding the Stalker into a bloodied smear on the pavement.
"You should have stayed out of this!" Brazaxinis bellowed. He glared balefully through swollen eyes as he lashed out at Eric. "We're not interested in you. Just the one kid!"
"Who?" Eric asked. "And what do you want the child for?"
Brazaxinis rolled out from under Eric and grabbed the angel. As the Malakite struggled to get free, Brazaxinis picked him up and threw him against one of the trees in the parking lot. He advanced towards Eric with death in his eyes as he pulled a huge knife out of his ratty flannel jacket.
"I'm going to gut you in front of your little brats Blackwing," the Djinn spat. "They get to watch you die."
Eric shook his head to clear it and saw the demon advancing. He smiled coldly as he realized where the demon had tossed him. A few years ago, the Virtue did a favor for Eli, the Archangel of Creation, although he hadn't known who it was at the time. In gratitude, Eli blessed him with the gift that he gave all of his own Malakim: theability to use anything they can pick up as a weapon.
Throwing Eric into that tree was just as good as throwing him into an armory.
Without a second's hesitation, the Virtue ripped off a large branch. The first strike disarmed the demon, the second one drove him to his knees, and the subsequent blows were for the purpose of caving in the demon's skull. The blows fell with an inhuman rhythm that sent blood and flesh flying in all directions.
Eric snarled as the Djinn's struggles grew weaker. He forced the demon down completely and grabbed its neck with one hand and the fallen knife in the other. He pressed the point up against Brazaxinis' neck.
"Once again: Which child do you want and why?" he hissed.
Brazaxinis spat blood at him. "You'll figure out which one soon enough. And when the battle is done, we're going to come after you."
"Tell me what I want to know and I'll let you walk away." Eric answered.
"You're right." The blade slid into the Djinn's neck and severed the artery. The demon coughed and squirmed a few seconds from the pain. Only when the Virtue was sure that the Djinn's vessel was dead did he stand up and return to the day care center.
The parents swarmed around him as he stepped inside,all of them speaking at once. Eric raised his voice to carry over them all.
"Please, get your children home and lock your doors. The people out there were after one of the children and they were taking advantage of what is going on to try it."
The words had the desired effect. Although many stopped to talk to Eric and make sure he was all right, they all took their children out of the daycare and back home. As the last one filed out, the Virtue went into his office and grabbed a clean shirt and pants that he kept there. One look at the clothes he had been wearing before the fight was enough to convince him that it was beyond saving.
Dammit. I am going to start asking for a laundry fund when things calm down.
Carolyn locked the front doors and walked into Eric's office as he finished tucking the new shirt in. "How badly are you hurt?"
"Just knocked around a bit. Bastards got the drop on me." Eric smiled reassuringly at her.
Carolyn was having none of it though. "Where did they shoot you?"
"Don't worry about it. He missed me completely I-"
Carolyn lifted the ruined shirt out and stared at it. She held it up to his face with an accusing expression. "There are three bullet holes in here and not a mark on you. What happened?"
"Don't worry about that, Carolyn. I'll explain later."
She glared reproachfully at his evasiveness but let the matter drop. Then she sighed as she looked in the direction of the playroom. "We have four that haven't been picked up yet. Can you go keep an eye on them? I want to try reaching their parents."
The Virtue walked into the playroom, glad to have a distraction from the events outside.
The children were all playing as he walked in. Jill and Michael were playing a board game that they uncovered, Lisa was coloring in a coloring book and Jaime was doing his homework. Eric sat down heavily as the children looked up at him. There was so much going on and the Virtue felt overwhelmed.
Lisa walked up to him and sat on his lap. She showed him the page that she'd been coloring.
"That's very pretty, Lisa. What color are you going to make the flower?"
Lisa thought about this serious matter with a five year old's intensity. "I think the flower should be blue and white,"she announced. She took to her task and hummed a song she learned in school.
The Virtue glanced at her left hand in alarm. On the top of her hand was a mark in the shape of blood red numerals.
It read 666
Eric felt horror sweep through him in a chilling rush. A child being marked with that sign? Why? He touched it gently and rubbed at the mark slightly.
"Lisa honey, what's this? Someone write on you?"
She looked at where he was pointing. "What do you mean, Mr. Macaulife? There's nothing there."
He pointed with his forefinger. "Right there. You don't see that?"
She looked one more time at where he was pointing but saw nothing. She shook her head and went back to coloring.
From across the room, Jamie walked over to Eric with his homework. He didn't really want to do it, but his mom always told him to deal with that first. And now that he was done he knew he could play. Sometimes, Mr. Macaulife even let him play a game on the computer in his office if there weren't many people around.
As he got close to Eric, he could see that something was bothering him. He heard what he was asking and looked where he was pointing.
"Hey, Mr. Macaulife? What do those numbers mean?"
Eric's eyes widened. "You can see them?"
Jamie nodded. "They've been there for about an hour. What do-"
The Malakite heard another shift in the Symphony. Both he and Jamie winced at the sudden onslaught of sound. Eric looked down at Lisa's hand again.
The numerals now read 616.
Jamie and Eric looked at the new mark and then each other in complete puzzlement.
"Mr. Macaulife, did you see that?" Jamie whispered.
"Yes I did Jamie. Don't mention it to anyone right now."
"What does it mean?"
The Malakite took Jamie's homework and opened it up. "I will tell you later when things are safer Jamie. Please trust me and don't talk about it." Eric's mind was frantically racing to puzzle things out.
The first complication was that Jamie could seethe Mark. Only beings that were aware of the Symphony would have been capable of seeing it. He didn't know that the boy had it in him until now. This made him a potential Soldier of Heaven and Eric had to teach him how to handle his new ability.
The next problem was the appearance of the Mark of the Beast. It was supposed to identify people that were serving Hell. Eric had heard of children serving Hell, but never this young. He glanced at Lisa as she played and listened to the Symphony tell him how honorable she was. There was nothing in her to suggest why she would have that Mark.
And the final problem was the change in the Mark itself. The number had changed at the same time Eric heard the shift in the universe. Could the change in the Mark mean that those who had it were no longer bound to Hell? The Virtue looked outside the window as he tried to make sense of things.
What was going on out there?
Eric had returned Jamie's homework to him and tried to piece things together. So much was going on and the angel felt as if he was caught in a tempest. The Malakite was so distracted that he gave a start when he saw someone new in the playroom.
He was a short man with a joyful expression on his face. The younger children were crowded around him and talking excitedly. Even Carolyn was smiling as she watched him talk to the children.
As Eric entered the room, he beamed happily at him. "Hello, Eric. I'm glad I found you." He gestured around the room and everyone seemed frozen in time.
Eric felt relief as he stood and bowed to his Archangel. He was finally going to understand what was going on. "My Lord Christopher. I see that the War has begun."
"The War's over, Eric. And that's why I'm here."
For the first time Eric could recall, Christopher's face was sad. The Archangel looked as if he was carrying a heavy burden as he told his story.
"Hell took to the field and we met them. Their forces have been broken and even now, we're hunting the survivors." He looked at Lisa who was frozen in the act of showing off her newly colored flower.
"And as you no doubt noticed, there are humans that wear the Mark on their hands."
The Malakite’s eyes widened. "She just started showing it. Archangel, we can't kill her for that. She's just a little girl."
"I'll get to that in a moment, Eric." He stared at Jamie who was keeping a slight distance from everything as if to appear that he wasn't interested in Christopher. The Archangel of Children walked over to stroke the boy's hair fondly. "I see you have a Soldier now."
Eric nodded. "He's just become aware of the Symphony. I never knew he would."
"Oh, I already did." Christopher answered. "He's a special one all right. I wasn't going to tell you. It was going to be a surprise in a few years when he was old enough to understand what was going on." Christopher sighed. "But now it looks as if he is going to grow up sooner."
The Archangel of Children pressed his hand against Jamie's forehead. A pure silver light flowed from his hands and into the boy. It lingered in the air around Jamie for a moment then faded rapidly. "He now knows how to sing the Song of Shields," Christopher said as he noticed the puzzled expression on the Malakite's face. "Teach him as best you can, Eric." Then the Archangel's expression turned grim.
"I don't have much time Eric so listen closely. Uriel,the Archangel of Purity has returned."
Eric's eyes widened in horror; Uriel had set out to cleanse the world of spirits that he felt didn't belong on Earth. His Crusade ended when God himself called Uriel to the Higher Heavens and he had not been seen since. The fact that he was back was not good news at all in Eric's eyes.
Christopher continued quickly. "He brought Sariel, the Archangel of Death, with him. Even now, his angels mark the worthy with the nameof God and hunt down the ones with the mark of the Beast. Uriel has taken back the title of Lord Commander and is demanding our obedience."
For several seconds, Eric was stunned into silence. He looked at his Archangel and Creator in puzzlement.
"So what are we to do?"
"I shall return to my Cathedral after I have seen my angels. But as for you..."
Christopher's expression was even more serious now. "All of my Virtues have sworn an Oath of some kind that they would not bring harm to a child. I have been told to remove that Oath from them and let them take another that is...more suited to Uriel's plan."
Eric's jaw dropped. "You can't be serious."
"Deadly serious. Which is why I am offering you a choice. I will not force any of my Virtues to do this. But I cannot risk them finding you." Christopher reached into his bag and pulled out a gem as large as a man's fist. Eric knew in an instant that it was his Heart. It began to glow with a pale blue light as it got close to Eric.
"The choice is simple. You change your Oath and continue to serve me. Or I declare you Outcast."
Eric's pulse quickened. Very few Malakim were ever cast out. Those who had violated their Oaths typically turned themselves in to their Superior and undertook whatever punishment was required to atone. No Malakite had ever broken his Heart and the handful of Malakim that had been cast out had either killed themselves or had been hunted by every Virtue that was in the area.
The alternative of swearing a new Oath was just as dreadful. The Oaths gave the Virtues their reason for existence. No Malakite ever changed his Oath unless there was a very serious reason behind it; the disgrace behind that act was usually enough to prevent that from happening.
Eric found himself almost too terrified to speak. When he did answer, he barely recognized his own voice.
"My Lord Christopher, you gave me life and I shall always love you for that. But I will not obey Uriel or his angels."
The Archangel of Children smiled and tears fell down his face. "I knew you would say that, Eric." He kissed the Virtue on his forehead and stepped away. "I love you too, son. Remember that when things are their darkest." Christopher smashed Eric's Heart as he looked into the Virtue's eyes.
Eric felt a stab of pain as the iridescent powder fell to the ground. As he dropped to his knees, Christopher rose up in his Celestial form of a winged bear. He looked down at Eric with a sad expression as he spoke the formal words of banishing an angel.
"Eric, I cast you out from my service and God's grace. May you find your way back someday to the light of Heaven." As he faded from sight, he whispered one last thing.
"Take the children and the woman and leave soon,Eric. It is getting more dangerous for all of you in this town. Find Michael and his angels. They may offer you shelter."
Once Christopher vanished, Carolyn and the children snapped back into reality. They remembered nothing of what had happened. Eric found himself envying them .
The sun had set and the doors of the center had been locked and barricaded. The Virtue had rummaged through the Djinn's van before settling down. There were several rifles, boxes of ammo and the pistol from the Soldier of Drugs that had shot at him. He found some cleaning equipment towards the back of the vehicle and began working on the weapons to keep him from dwelling on the outside world.
An air of sadness hung over both Eric and Carolyn. The four children were still in the center and from the looks of things, their parents were not going to come for them.
The news was coming in a steady stream and none of it was good. Tokyo, Chicago, New York, Rio de Janeiro, London, Moscow...all of them had been destroyed by nuclear weapons. Comet Hivley's path had unexpectedly altered and it smashed into the Earth. The impact had destroyed Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia. Eric had sent the children to the playroom as the radio was broadcasting the news. He and Carolyn simply looked straight ahead, too stunned for words.
"Eric, what are we going to do?" Carolyn whispered. "There has to be some mistake. This couldn't-"
The Virtue held up a hand to stop her as Jamie walked into the room. The boy was looking at both of them with a haunted expression.
"Mr. Macaulife? Ms. Davis? Things are bad out there, aren't they?"
Although no longer bound by Christopher's laws, Eric could not bring himself to lie or talk down to a child. He guided Jamie to a chair and sat him down.
"It is bad out there right now, Jamie. It's probably not going to be safe for a little while."
The boy was desperately trying to keep control over his emotions. "They said Chicago was blown up. My mom was thereon her business trip. Do you think she's...?"
Eric sighed and looked the boy in the eyes as best he could. "She may have been there at the time, Jamie. I'm sorry."
Jamie's tears began to flow and Eric cursed himself for having a hand in stripping away some of the child's innocence.
The Virtue had never felt so alone in his life.
This was the day that the servants of War had trained for, prepared for, lived for. This was Armageddon.
All of Michael's servants were involved, Saints, Soldiers, Relievers, and Angels. Those with healing talents stayed just behind the front lines, helping their brethren wounded in the fighting. Some Saints and Soldiers had been hurt and poisoned in the nuclear attacks, some had died already. The healers kept on, retrieving those they could from the field of battle. Michael's forces do not retreat without a direct order from a recognized superior.
With Gabriel and David at his side, the Archangel of War drove into Hell in pursuit of Lucifer and Baal. Michael and Gabriel set about destroying the demons they could, hunting down their opposites, while David ranged farther, cleaning up pockets of resistance.
Hell fell quickly under the assault. Janus, Archangel of Wind, was there as well, wreaking more chaos and destruction on the demonic forces.
On earth, battles raged on as well, across the blasted lands, across the few preserved pockets, across hills and desert and sea. The angels of War were in their element.
Áinel's gun gave its final click as it fired its last bullet. Her opposite, already wounded, grinned as he though the had gained an advantage. She grinned right back as she dropped the empty gun back into its holster and drew her blade. The demon ran, Áinel hot on his heels.
She closed, struck out, sliced across his back. The demon fell, tried to crawl away. Áinel pinned him, put her face close to his.
"Where is he? Where is your dark master?"
Pale, terrified, the demon stammered out, "I don't know! I swear, I don't know!"
Truth rang in her mind. With a shrug, she removed his head, ignoring the warm splatter of his blood on her arms, and sought out her next target. All around, angels and demons fought in pairs, trios, quartets. Human servants faced each other, or faced other Celestials, determined to do their part. The body count rose, the ground grew slick and muddy.
And yet, none could find Baal, Demon Prince of theWar, Michael's opposite. Some said that Lucifer himself had dragged the demon from the field, and vanished to... well, somewhere else.
By now, the mundane humans had fled the field, or been slain simply for being in the way. They knew by now what was going on, knew that these were no mere mortals slaughtering each other, and so the wise fled. Some had taken up dropped weapons and taken a side, but without Celestial abilities and support, they could not last long.
Time loses meaning in heated battles such as this. Minutes, hours... irrelevant. The fighting finally began to slow down, and it was clear the angels had won the field. Wounded began the withdrawal to the medical stations, and slowly back to the Groves when they were ordered there, when there was not enough enemy left forthem to fight.
Áinel felt numb. She'd felt the Symphony tear when the human cities were nuked, felt the ground tremble when the comet struck half a world away. She'd seen comrades, human and angel ,fall on the field never to rise again. This was what she had been created for, this was the Final Battle, and now... now it was over.
She saw others around her with shocked faces as they limped into the field hospital. She was covered with gashes and bruises, and she suspected her arm might be broken, but she was in better shape than most.
"Áine," a voice called her. She turned to see Ahrionel sitting on a cot nearby, leg bandaged.
"Ahrie!" She rushed over to him, glad to see he had survived. Her mentor, her dearest brother, her closest friend. He had earned the Friend of the Fighters distinction and the Word of Recruiting a few decades ago; she had earned the title of Vassal of War only a year ago, but they were still very close. A wave of nausea washed over her as she realized what they had just been through, that she could have lost him. The look on his face said the same.
She sat down with him, carefully, leaned against him as he slid an arm around her shoulders. "Áine, my precious little Áine, I'm so glad you're alright," he murmured into her hair.
"You too," was all she could manage. They held each other for a long moment, until the overworked healers came to tend to Áinel's wounds.
David's servants were finishing off the last of the enemy who remained in the area, and hunting down those who had fled. With the slightly uncomfortable feeling that they might not be needed, the angels and Saints began ascending to Heaven.
Something felt different, they all noticed it. Instead of rising, they were drawn sideways, around the globe. Confused angels appeared in the Groves, and they knew... that Heaven was now on Earth. And they saw others, other forms surrounding the Groves.
Whisperings turned to mutterings, to low voices,to spoken arguments. Why were they boxed in, and above all, where was Michael?
Silence fell before Doxas, Angel of Glory and Michael's second. The old Mercurian looked furious. She looked around the Groves, looked at the forms surrounding it, and waved a hand. When she spoke, her voice was a whisper, yet it carried equally to all.
"We all know what has happened on Earth. What you are all realizing now is that Heaven has descended to take its place where Jerusalem once stood. We are now within New Jerusalem, and that is the dominion of Uriel."
Shocked murmurs and shouts sounded, hushed by Doxas raising her hand for quiet. "There is more. I was with Michael and Gabriel as they campaigned into Hell. We won the day there as well. However, we were met there by Sariel, Archangel of Death."
More whispers and murmurs. There was an Archangel of Death? "Yes," Doxas confirmed. None of us are certain how this came to be. The Council did not raise him to his position."
That dropped a stunned silence on the crowd. "I heard Sariel tell Michael that his word was no longer necessary. I saw his face as he heard the Truth. But!" she interrupted the shouts. "I also felt the Symphony shift as the Truth became False. Gabriel felt it as well, and turned and fled to Earth."
She paused for a moment to be certain she had their attention. "Michael followed Gabriel." She lifted a large piece of velvet, folded like a bag, and carefully opened it on the ground. Broken bits of crystal lay on the cloth, still glowing a gentle red.
"This is what remains of Michael's Heart. He has chosen to rebel against Uriel and go rogue. The Groves are surrounded by Uriel's forces. He has given us an ultimatum... swear fealty to him and his new order, or be imprisoned with the demons we have captured."
The angels started yelling, incoherent as voice layered upon voice. A wind rose in the trees of the Groves, descending and taking on a form.
"Hear her out!" Janus, Archangel of the Wind called out, silencing them again.
"We have little time," Doxas continued. "We offer you an alternative. Janus has chosen to remain in Heaven for now, and do what he can to take down Uriel's domination. He will accept any of you who wish to join him. For the rest..."
The cadre of Malakim who guard the hearts of War stepped aside.
"There is little time," Janus repeated . "Any who choose to jump to Earth and join Michael can be tracked through your Hearts. If you wish to choose this path, I urge you to break them. You will be branded Outcast, but it will grant you some time to find Michael and help him.
"The choice is yours." Janus' form dissipated and rose to the treetops. Silence reigned for a moment as the angels considered their options. A few rose to follow the Archangel of the Wind, but most hurried into the core of the Groves to find their Hearts.
Áinel found Ahrionel's hand as they reached their hearts, other angels pressed close. Áinel spotted Raniel and Lanus, the Ofanite and Malakite that were their closest friends.
"See you below," Lanus said as his hand closed around his heart, pulverizing it. He gave them a quick nod and hurried to the locus where the angels of War were fleeing to earth. Raniel gave each a quick hug, then raced off after Lanus.
Áinel and Ahrie's eyes locked, and they nodded as one. Fists tightened about the gems that were their hearts, and the crystals shattered. As they hurried to the locus, Ahrionel scooped up a fragment of his.
"Hurry," Doxas urged the angels as they were ushered to the locus. She had gathered all of the surviving Seneschals to her, and the velvet containing the precious fragments of Michael's heart.
"Each of you take a piece. It may help you to find him, but we must not let them fall into the hands of Uriel's hunters. You know what you must do when you reach your Tethers. Those of us who remain will be with Janus and David, and we will help you as we can."
The Seneschals were the last to flee. As Doxas' shield broke and the agents of Uriel and Dominic swarmed in, Malakim formed a living wall between the invaders and the few remaining Masters of Valor. The Malakim who had last been charged with guarding the hearts of the Warriors and with guarding Michael himself now made their last stand. The Masters fled before the fighting began, to avoid dissonance; some streaking upward to join Janus, others diving into the Catacombs beneath the Groves to join with David's servants.
On Earth, angels were scattering across the surviving continents, some helping the Seneschals in their final duty... to destroy their Tethers. Fire and explosions rang out as the angels fled, grouping with Seneschals to search for Michael.
Áinel and Ahrie landed with a light thump, scurrying out of the way of the next angels to come through the Tether. A pair of men darted in and out of the building, wiring something with speed that screamed "Ofanim."
By the time the Seneschal came through, the Ofanim were done, and clearing the angels to a safe distance. They led the Seneschal out with them, trailing a pair of yellow wires attached to a small black tube. This they pressed into his hands and showed him the critical red button.
The Seneschal, an old Mercurian, wept as he pressed the button to set off the charges, sending his building crumbling to the ground. A massive dust cloud billowed out, sweeping over the watchers, turning his tears to mud.
They held a moment of silence before the Seneschal gave them their instructions. "We split into groups, each group with a Cherub attuned to me. I will take a small team ahead and find Michael ,then send secure word to the Cherubim to follow. Scatter for now, we must try to avoid leading Uriel's followers to our Father."
This was done with the efficiency of trained Warriors. Áineland Ahrie were joined by Lanus and Raniel. "Just like old times!" the Ofanite said with a grin. Lanus rolled his eyes skyward and stifled a sigh.
They chose a direction at random and starting jogging, an easy pace for now. They knew that they needed to hurry, but also knew that to sprint would bring unwanted attention.
"Where are we, anyway?" Áinel asked. The locus in the Groves had been spitting groups of angels to random Tethers, so that those who remained could truthfully say they didn't know where most of the angels had gone. Now, they were on the outskirts of a largish city, somewhere.
Raniel looked around at some street names as they got closer to the city. "Oh, I've been here before! There's a real nasty section of town that Stone is active... well, they were, I don't know if they are now... but maybe we could find some."
Lanus and Ahrionel shrugged. "We have nowhere else to go. Lead on." Áinel noticed Ahrie fiddling with something in his pocket, when she got close she could feel that he was directing energy into something without quite burning Essence, but wha the was doing she couldn't tell.
In the city, the police were out in force, in full riot gear as they tried to keep the panicked mobs under control. It looked like the National Guard had been called out as well. People were demanding answers, trying to flee the city, trying to come into the city with the belief it would be safer. Even Janus might find the panic too chaotic. The angels were forced to slow to a walk to avoid being hassled by these humans, and had to stay away from the main roads and open spaces.
Of course, any mugger who challenged the foursome would be in for a surprise, but they really didn't want to run into any conflict.
A quiet disturbance in the Symphony nearby drew their attention. A group of dark-clad figures had just forced their way into a building nearby, a store of some sort. They hesitated, knowing what it could mean to commit to this now. Ahrie was ready to flee, but Lanus met his eyes with a level look, then turned and strode in after the thugs. Ahrie muttered something unangelic under his breath, then led the others in as well.
The thugs, five of them, had cornered the shop owner and were demanding money and goods, the jewelry on display in the cabinets. They heard the solid footsteps of the Malakite as he closed with them, and brought their weapons to bear.
"Why don't you lot just leave while you still can?" Lanus offered quietly.
"Oh please. What are you going to do?" The man snorted when the other three angels entered as well. "This your army?"
"As a matter of fact," Lanus tore the gun from the man's grip and lifted him by his shirt front, "yes. Now tell your little friends to drop their weapons and go away."
The man spat out something rather vulgar, earning him a solid shake. "Don't make me lose my temper," Lanus warned.
The other thugs opened fire on him. With a sigh, Lanus swung his captive to use as a shield. He wasn't terribly fond of such tactics, but if he killed a human it would ring out to every Celestial nearby. If the humans did it themselves, it would not.
He threw the limp body at the nearest gunman. They paused at the sight of the seemingly bulletproof angel and what he... they... had done to their cohort. A bold one with a sneer edged toward the door, only to run into a grinning Raniel.
"Hi! Going somewhere?" he asked enthusiastically, then punched the man hard in the face. The man reeled, tried to bring his gun up, and had it neatly snatched away by Ahrionel.
"Such horrible manners. Is that what they teach you when you serve Hell, foolish man?" The man paled slightly as he realized what he was up against. He tried to squirm past Raniel, to no avail. The Ofanite soon had a solid grip on him, and offered friendly advice to Ahrie on form while Ahrie pummeled the Soldier.
The other three humans had no chance against an angry Malakite, and were lucky to crawl out of the store under their own power. Raniel dumped the unconscious Soldier and the body of the first man in the alley nearby, then lurked in the doorway watching for any more trouble.
Ahrionel slowly approached the storekeeper where he cowered in a corner. "Please... please, take what you want, but leave me alone," the man stammered through an accent.
"We don't want to hurt you, or take anything from you. Are you alright?" Ahrie asked gently.
The man nodded, carefully pulled himself to his feet. "You... you're..."
"Just passing through," Ahrie assured him. "You might want to try to get out while you can though."
The man shook his head. "Where would I go? My family was all in New York and Jerusalem. I have nothing..." he fought off sobs for a moment, then forced them down again. "But you helped me. Please, there must be some way I can pay you."
"No, really, we were just passing this way. We can't..." something in the case caught his eye, a pendant set with tiny diamond chips on a silver chain, but the central cavity was empty.
The man saw what Ahrie was looking at. "Ah yes, I had not quite finished this. I cannot find a stone that I feel fits just right."
Ahrie glanced over his shoulder, checking to see where his comrades were. They had taken up a watch at the front of the store, ignoring him. He fished in his pocket, pulled out the fragment of his heart he had taken. That was what he had been working in his pocket, easing it into the shape of a cut gem. The rich blue sparkled as he laid it on the case.
The man's eyes widened. "This... this is magnificent. And you carry it in your pocket just like that? You must be... ah."
Ahrie cracked a smile. "I picked it up in a hurry, I had no other way to carry it. Would it fit?"
The man laid it in place in the pendant, letting Ahrie see how well it did indeed fit. "This is what I had in mind when I made this piece," he said quietly. He nodded upward towardsÁinel. "In fact, it would set off that red hair."
"It matches her eyes," Ahrie murmured. "Can you do it?"
"Ah, of course, of course." He removed the heart-stone, and cleaned and polished it before laying it on a piece of velvet. With tweezers, he applied a tiny drop of epoxy and set it in place, then closed the prongs.
"It needs time to set, give it a full day," he advised Ahrie as he laid the necklace in a box.
"How much?" Ahrie asked, reaching for another pocket.
"No no no," the man stopped him. "No, please, let me give it to you. I owe you for saving my store, let me pay that debt."
Ahrie considered, then finally nodded. "Alright, but it would still be a good idea for you to take shelter somewhere. The battle may be over, but a new war is beginning."
"Oy, I know son," the jeweler said sadly.
Ahrie tucked the box safely away, said his farewells, and the angels moved on, deeper into the city. The sun was setting, and they feared their enemies would not rest just because it would be night.
Dodging the city patrols slowed their progress, but they all silently agreed that they didn't want to risk a demon or enemy angel amongst the human enforcers. However, the deeper Raniel led them into the city, the fewer patrols they saw. Instead, they started to see more and more graffiti on the walls, more boarded windows. As they pushed deeper, they glimpsed small groups in the shadows of the alleys, watching. With their combined Resonances, they determined that the groups were human, nervous, but wary and ready to protect their territory.
One group started forward to challenge them, but stopped at the dark determination on Lanus' face, and backed off.
Raniel was pacing and muttering to himself. "Where are they? Where are the colors?"
"What's wrong?" Áinel asked.
"I can't find their tags." He waved his hand at the graffiti on the walls. "The marks that say who's here. I don't see the Stony's marks."
"Could they have left?"
"Maybe, but that's not like them. Abandoning a place? No, I think we're just not in their turf yet. Let'skeep moving."
The Ofanite led a path that would seem meandering to most others. This group was used to it. He picked up speed as he started finding the tags he was looking for, forcing the others intoa light jog despite Ahrie's warnings to the contrary.
Raniel came to a halt under a broken street light, peering at a battered van near a small building. "That. Stone helped make that place."
Lanus focused on something else. He squatted next to a pair of bodies; one bludgeoned to a pulp, the other with a snapped neck. He examined the discarded tree branch, then the broken neck.
"Whatever did this wasn't human," he said quietly.
"Let's go find out what happened," Ranie said, starting forward.
"No, Ranie, get back-"
A gunshot rang out, sending Ahrionel diving for cover and dragging a squirming Áinel with him.
"Ranie!" Lanus called out.
"They shot at us," Áinel said in surprise.
"Stone doesn't shoot," Ahrionel answered grimly.
That was all that the angels needed. If the angels of Stone weren't there, they had probably been killed by whatever was in there.
Lanus broke from the group and moved straight to Raniel. The Wheel was on the ground and bleeding from a shot to hischest.
"Dammit!" he growled. "That was one of my favorite shirts!"
The Malakite shook his head at Raniel. "Next time we tell you to get back-"
"Get back and don't ask why." Raniel answered. "But that place was always safe. I can't imagine it being taken."
Áinel had drawn her sword and Ahrionel pulled out his gun. The Seraph moved slightly behind the Cherub and they weaved towards the building. Neither spoke at this point; the two were simply aware of each other's presence. Just as they were about to move in on the building, a new figure appeared out of the air. He was a wiry man and even in the dark, the angels could see the look of determination on his face. He charged the two of them without a trace of fear.
Ahrionel raised his gun and let out his breath. He had just centered on the attacker when Áinel's hand snaked across his wrist.
"Hold your fire!" She turned to face the man as he was advancing on her. "Eric! It's Áinel!"
Eric stopped dead in his tracks. As he holsteredhis gun, the two angels approached. "Áine? What are you doing here?"
"Just get us inside. We'll talk there."
The Virtue glanced at the window of the center. "Put it down and unlock the door, Jamie. They're friends." He looked over at Raniel as he was being helped up by Lanus.
"Aw, crap. How bad is he?"
"He'll live," came Lanus' terse reply. He stopped as he glanced at Eric. "Good to see you again, Choir Brother. Was that you shooting?"
"No, that was my new Soldier." Eric looked sheepishly at Raniel. "errr...Sorry about that. We've been having some problems in the neighborhood lately."
The Wheel shrugged. "Áine and Ahrie have Healing Songs in their collection. And hey, your Soldier shot me in the dark at center mass. Damn good."
Eric smiled at him as he guided them towards the door as Jamie opened it up. "His first day on the job too." This earned an impressed look from the stoic Lanus as they stepped into the safety of the center.
Carolyn looked at the newcomers as they walked in. "Friends of yours?"
Eric nodded. "At least the woman there. We used to work together."
She stepped aside and glanced up at Lanus who regarded her quietly. "More angels?"
"Yes, Carolyn. Which means we have a bit more of a chance now."
Áinel frowned at Eric. "So you told her?"
"What choice did I have?" He locked the doors ss Lanus sat Raniel down on a couch. "When the world is ending all around you, it's kind of hard to keep what we are a secret."
A bright clear note rang out in the Symphony and Raniel was bouncing back up again. Ahrionel wiped some sweat away as he sat down on the couch. Lanus began to double-check the barricade.
Jamie had entered the room as Raniel sprang backup. His rifle was slung and he stared at the group. Eric smiled at him reassuringly. "It's all right, Jamie. They're friends." He turned to face the war angels and his face turned grim.
"Christopher told me a little bit of what happened before he... had to leave. Are you here for me or on the run also?"
The four hesitated for a moment. "What do you know about what happened to Michael?" Ahrie asked.
Eric blinked. "Christopher said to seek out his angels, that they might be able to give me sanctuary..."
Lanus frowned and squinted at Eric. "Sanctuary from wha..." his face shifted. "Ah. Did you break it yourself, or did Christopher do it?"
Eric's head bowed low in shame. His answer was barely audible. "Christopher had my Heart with him and he gave me a choice." The Malakite raised his head again to look the four War angels in the eyes as he continued. "He told me very little about the battle itself or what happened afterwards."
"Michael does not agree with Uriel and Sariel's decrees." Ahrionel said. "He... has refused to follow along." The Cherub paused to let that sink in.
"We chose to follow him." Lanus laid a hand on Eric's shoulder. "We broke our own."
Eric shook his head. "I feel..."
"Empty?" Lanus replied. "Every one of our Choir that made that choice is feeling the same way." The larger Malakite shuddered in horror that echoed Eric's then sat down to talk to him.
Raniel and Áinel moved quietly throughout the building, quietly noting the defenses. They grudgingly admitted that for someone who didn't serve War, Eric had done a decent enough job at securing the place.
Áinel was about to head back when she saw the human woman that worked with Eric...Carolyn was her name? Yes,that was it. The two regarded each other silently for a moment.
Carolyn smiled hesitantly and broke the uneasy silence. "What Choir are you?"
"I am one of the Seraphim," she answered. "The Most Holy. We are the ones who see Truth in statements and actions."
"Can I ask you something?" At Áinel's nod, she let her question out in a rush. "What is this about breaking a Heart? It's obviously something serious, but it seems to hit Eric even more."
Áinel thought for a second on the best way to answer.. "Our Heart is the core of our being, it is what binds us to Heaven. It is our lighthouse in a hurricane, our anchor in the storm when we are thrown adrift in the Symphony. It is that which makes us what we are and anchors out true selves. This," she gestured at her own body, "Is a shell, a costume while we are on this worldly plane. And now, with our Hearts gone, we cannot assume our true forms, cannot return to Heaven unaided."
"Cannot be tracked either," Raniel added.
"Which is why we made the choice." Áinelagreed. "However, it was a choice to deliberately turn away from all that we hold dear, all that we have fought for, all that we are, for our loyalty to Michael and our faith that his is the right cause."
Carolyn nodded slowly. "And Eric?"
"He, and the others of his Choir, uphold Honor. They swear oaths to their Archangels, oaths that bind them yet define who and what they are. To have that suddenly removed, for whatever reason, is the sudden tearing away of the self."
"The chains are gone, yet their weight lingers on," Lanus mused quietly in the other room. His gaze was far away, but his voice carried to Eric's heart.
"Exactly." Eric replied. "I whisper my Oaths, but don't feel them anymore. They're just...words now. Almost like having a phantom pain for a severed limb."
Lanus grunted an agreement. "But we are still Malakim, Eric. We still live by our Oaths even if the chains are gone."
"Just try telling Uriel that."
"I won't bother," Lanus stated simply. "I'll let Michael explain that to him."
Over by the front window, Jamie resumed keeping an eye on the outside. Ahrionel nodded politely at him and sat down on the couch.
"I'm sorry about shooting your friend," the boy said quietly. "I didn't know who he was."
"He's fine now, Jamie. That was quite a shot you made for someone who's never used a rifle before." The Cherub settled in and looked outside to the streets. Things were eerily silent and bathed in the glow of the one streetlight. From time to time, the rumble of a vehicle and the crack of a shot could be heard.
"You should get some rest."
"I can't sleep. When I try, my dreams are bad."
Ahrionel smiled in sympathy. "They probably will be for a while. Things have changed out there. I take it that you lost your parents from this?"
The boy nodded and his posture tensed up. His voice was strained as he kept looking out. "My mom was in Chicago on a business trip. My dad walked out a few years ago. Mr.Macaulife is all I have left."
"I won't tell you that it will be alright. I believe it will be, but there is still a long and difficult road ahead of us. My colleagues and I will be fleeing several enemies, who will be on our heels until the bitter end. The earth itself will be turned against us. But we have to try. We have to find our leader,and help him to fight this war." He studied the boy for a moment and squinted at something that caught his attention. His eyes widened in shock, although he quickly regained control. "Eric and I would like you to come with us, we can teachyou how to help us fight." He had to draw on his martial training to keep his voice calm with what he had just learned from the Symphony.
The boy now had six Forces, but he had the potential for more.
Jamie was not human.
On to Chapter 2
Armageddon has come and gone. Heaven has won. Little is left of the mortal world. "Bright Victory," the adventureseed created by Perry M. Lloyd, can be found here.
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