Christopher was not in the best of moods when he returned home. He avoided the children and snuck in quietly. He would not take the chance that he would react angrily to a child over what had happened.
He was angry with Uriel mostly. The Archangel of Purity dismissed anger, protests and arguments with little more than a shrug or a gesture as if arguments against his views were not important enough to consider. He was so firmly convinced that he was in the right over what had happened on Earth that nothing would sway him.
He was also sick with worry over the angels that he had cast out. He truly hated to do it, but he could not risk that they would become Dissonant from obeying Uriel and Sariel as they hunted humans with the Mark on them. It was still difficult to see so many empty spots in his Cathedral where his angel's Hearts had been.
As he sat at his desk in contemplation, the window banged open and the wind roared in. He arched an eyebrow in annoyance.
"I am not seeing anyone right now, Janus."
The wind swirled around into a small tornado and slowed down to reveal a huge brawny man. The Archangel of Wind was wiping tears from his eyes and grinning at Christopher.
"An angel that was yanked up to the Higher Heavens-"he sputtered. "Oh, that was GREAT! You're the first one who's ever been that bold." Janus roared with laughter again and clutched his sides.
Christopher shrugged in response. "Children are more honest than grown ups, Janus. I think it's a wonderful way to approach life."
The Archangel of Wind composed himself and patted Christopher on the back. "Not a bad statement though. You're sounding more and more like your father. Or how you used to be when you were one of David's Cherubim."
"And I find myself not knowing if that's a good thing or not." The voice came from the door to Christopher's office. It was Novalis, the Archangel of Flowers. She was dressed in jeans and a simple green t-shirt as opposed to the more formal garments that other Archangels chose. She smiled at both Archangels as she crossed the room.
"One of my Ofanim was in the Council Chambers and she told me what happened. Christopher, it is going to get to the point where you are going to be tried for heresy if you keep challenging Uriel like this."
"Let them try, Novalis." Christopher retorted. "I serve my Word faithfully in spite of what's happened out on Earth. And I refuse to cower fearfully just because Uriel is in charge"
Novalis smiled at Janus. "I told you he'd be perfect for this."
Janus nodded enthusiastically. "So clue the kid in already, Novy. I'm getting bored."
Before Christopher could ask, Novalis had turned her attention back to him. "There are Archangels in Heaven who do not approve of what is going on, but will not use violence to rebel. We remainin Heaven to lead by example. I think you should be a part of this."
The Archangel of Children looked puzzled at this. "And what do you expect to accomplish? Uriel, Sariel and Dominic control most everything in Heaven now."
"But they are only three votes in the Council. I still lead the Peace Faction and will not change my beliefs no matter who is in control."
Christopher looked at Janus. "And what about you, Archangel of Wind? Why do you stay here instead of going to Michael?"
"Are you kidding? Heaven is becoming stagnant and in dire need of shaking up. You really need to ask that question?"
"Yes, since I can't see you agreeing to a peaceful solution to this."
"Winds change, Chris. The only solution I am truly agreeing to is the one that gets things done. Michael's people are able to work things out on Earth. I'm needed here."
The Archangel of Children sighed and looked out the window again. So much had changed in a short time out there and although Heaven was on Earth, things were so…wrong. He kept his back towards both of them, but they heard his answer.
"I stand with you both. What Uriel has done needs to be corrected." He turned to face them with a grim expression. "What do I need to do?"
Meanwhile, on Earth, a furious man and a calmer woman sat glaring at each other over a table covered with maps. The man slammed his hand down on the edge of the table.
"Why do we wait? We have enemies on all sides. The Usurper holds Heaven in his iron grip, and the Traitor is roaming around here somewhere since his precious Hell has been taken over by the Hyena. While you sit here waiting for the rest of your angels to find you, the enemy is that much closer to finding us first."
"I am in no hurry to die, old friend," the woman answered, her voice calm and strong. "We dare not divide our armies to fight two enemies, not when we are still so few. If we attack one side now, we will be weakened and vulnerable to the other enemy." She shook her head, short hair not moving. "No, it is best to wait a while longer here, let our followers gather and recuperate from the last Battle, while our scouts search for a stronger place."
"We should move now!" the man emphasized again. "All this waiting around…"
"I know, Gabriel," the woman interrupted. "I know how that bothers you."
"No Michael," the Archangel of Fire growled, "Idon't think you do."
The woman… Michelle… raised an eyebrow. "I do hope you're not accusing me of lying, brother."
Gabriel stuttered for a moment, then sat down. "No." He heaved a sigh. "No, of course not, bro… sister. It's just…"
Their conversation was interrupted by a younger angel racing up to their table. "Pardon me, Lords, but we have a visitor."
The two Archangels leapt to their feet, reaching for weapons. "Who?" Gabriel hissed.
The angel flushed. "Ah, she says… er."
"Spit it out," Michelle said.
"Sir… Ma'am… it's Blandine."
Michelle and Gabriel looked at each other in astonishment for a moment. Then the Archangel of War turned to the angel. "Sendher over."
The Mercurian bowed and hurried over to another figure. A few seconds later, Blandine stood regarding the two Archangels calmly. Her normally placid expression was marred with sorrow as if she carried a heavy burden in her heart.
"Greetings Archangels of War and Fire. Thank you for seeing me."
Michelle rose and bowed in answer. "Hello Blandine. Are you here to demand our surrender?"
The Archangel of Dreams looked even sadder as she shook her head in reply. "The War...touched my field as well, Michael. My angels and I took the field and fought in the Marches as you and yours fought on Heaven and Hell. There is so little left...." her voice trailed off for a moment and the three regarded each other in silence.
Gabriel smiled at her. "I am pleased to see that you have survived, Blandine."
"But at what cost?" she answered. "Many of my angels were slain, just as Beleth's demons were slain. I destroyed my tower and the power behind it destroyed my lover's tower as well. I stood over her and Beleth finally said one thing to me that wasn't a threat or a statement of contempt." Tears flickered across her eyes as she composed herself. "She asked me to kill her. And I wasabout to when Uriel intervened. He took pity on Beleth and remade her. Now she has been reborn as the Archangel of Fear."
Michelle was silent for a moment. "So she has been restored, but was it against her will? And against yours?"
"She chose to Redeem, but it was after hearing what Uriel wanted of her. She walks in the minds of the human sleepers and spreads fear of damnation to them in an effort to guide them to God." The look of anger in Blandine's face was a shock to both Gabriel and Michelle.
"Archangel of War, I will not lie to you. I have never cared for your methods or the way you have fought the battle against Hell on Earth. But I dislike what Uriel has done even more. I have...an offer for you."
Gabriel started to refuse, sputtering somewhat,but Michelle stopped him with a small hand motion. The other hand gestured to Blandine to have a seat.
"I'm listening," the ancient Seraph said in a level voice.
Blandine sat quietly and took a moment to compose her thoughts. "I think that you both will appreciate what I haveto offer. I know that both of you are Outcast from Heaven. Uriel and Sariel would dearly love to know where you all are at this point."
Gabriel arched an eyebrow. "And what would he offer you to tell him?"
"Seeing that I broke my Heart and allowed my Servitors to do the same, I think the only thing he would offer me is a quick death."
Michelle started as she heard the Truth behind Blandine's words. "You cast yourself out of Heaven as well?"
"Yes. What choice did I have? I was entrusted with the stewardship of Dreams. I will not warp that into something that serves another Archangel. You should know me well enough on that."
"And what are you offering, Blandine?" Gabriel askedquietly.
"You and Michael...I beg your pardon; Michelle." The Archangel of War nodded at that and motioned for her to continue.
"The two of you need a place to form your Hearts and the Hearts ofyour angels. You can't go back to Heaven, Hell is closed to you and you can't form Hearts on Earth. But there are places in theFar Marches that even the Tsayadim cannot find. Only my most trusted of Servitors know of these places. I offer you a haven for the Hearts of your children."
"And what do you want in return, Blandine?" Michelle replied.
"First of all, neither I or my angels will be directly involved in the fighting. We protect the dreams of mortals and will continue to do so. And there are those who dwell in these parts ofthe Far Marches that wish to help Heaven against Uriel."
Michelle smiled. "Such as...?"
Blandine gestured to a figure standing nearby. He walked towards them with a purposeful stride and an aura of power. "I think you know this one, Michelle."
Ahrionel blinked once, looked at Jaime again, and then pulled himself together. "Tell you what, Jamie, how about youkeep an eye on things out there for a little while, I need a brief word with Mister Macaulife."
The boy nodded, taking up a watch near the window. The elder Cherub walked quickly into the inner rooms. He found Eric filling up some of the waterjugs. "Ah, there you are. Might I have a word?" he asked, although it wasn't really a question. Ahrie gently nudged Eric away from the others.
"Eric... about that young Soldier of yours... ah, what do you know about his parentage?"
The Malakite gave Ahrionel a puzzled expression. "His parentage? Not that much really. His father left when he was about eight or nine. He'd been having an affair with a young woman and left with her. His mother has been raising him on her own for the past few years."
Ahrie nodded slowly. "Have you met either?"
"His mother, yes. She started bringing Jamie here shortly after the divorce. This place-" The Malakite indicated the building with a gesture. "-Helped out the people in the area with low cost daycare. You seem a little concerned about the boy. Why is that?"
Ahrie paused, heaved a small sigh. "No easy way to say it. He isn't human."
Eric frowned at that statement. "Excuse me? I've been around that boy for years. What are you saying he is?"
"Eric, I have a special ability, I can... discern someone's potential. How many Forces they can potentially hold. Now, I usually deal with humans, I know their limits. Jamie has potential for more... much more. I don't know for certain which kind, but he's a Celestial crossbreed of some sort."
The Malakite was speechless for a moment as he took that in. "I've resonated the boy several times. It's a gift of Christopher's to his Virtues to automatically know how honorable a child is. If he was a demon or an angel, I wouldn't have had such an easy time of it."
"True, but he's young, his will hasn't been trained to resist that. Which reinforces my suspicion. You're certain his biological mother was human?"
"Without a doubt. I Resonate the parents from time to time to make sure the children are doing all right." The Virtue stopped a moment and looked at Ahrie in dawning realization. "Nephallim? Or just a Child of the Grigori?"
The question was a very serious one. The Grigori were the Eighth Choir that were sent to Earth to watch over Humanity. But acting like humans and falling into debauchery led to their being cast out of Heaven. They could procreate with humans and many of their children were still on Earth. The monstrous Nephallim were the result of some of these pairings. Both the Nephallim and the Grigori were hunted by Heaven and Hell.
Ahrionel shook his head in answer. "I feel no Discord in him, and if he had it you would notice. Seems he's one of the lucky ones."
"Of course, he hasn't hit puberty either and from what I know about the Nephallim that's when it hits", Eric replied. "So tell me about this talent of yours. How did you come by it?"
Ahrie shook his head. "Sorry, I forget that I'm not well-known outside the Groves." He extended a hand towards Eric. "Ahrionel, Angel of Recruiting, pleased to meet you."
Eric took the offered hand and smiled warmly at him. "Well, the more peaceful Archangels tended to steer away fromWar like recruiting. That would explain why I hadn't heard of you. How long have you been doing this work?"
"Not long, just a few decades. The Word tends to be a demonic target."
"No wonder War has it. Well, I can assure you that Jamie would definitely be a willing Soldier of Heaven. I assume you can help me with his training?"
"I'll do what I can, of course. Áinecould help as well, if she can remember that phase of her service."
"I thought all War angels remembered their training days." Eric said with a smirk.
"For the most part," the Cherub agreed. "She lost a bit of her human memories a while back, though."
The Malakite looked at Ahrionel in confusion. "Who did? And what do you mean 'human memories'?"
"Áine entered this world as a human, she became a Soldier when... well, that's her tale to tell, if she remembers. The point is, she was once a Soldier."
Eric started at that statement. "Áinelwas human?"
Ahrie grinned at the look on the Virtue's face. "Yes, a very long time ago. The circumstances behind her birth are strange and very rare. But again, this is something for her to tell."
"Of course, of course." Eric looked outside. It was getting late at night, but it was hard to tell. Dark clouds swirled overhead and began to dim the light from the street lamp.
Towards the back of the room, Áinel was watching dispassionately as Carolyn tended to the children. They looked atÁinel and Raniel curiously but drifted back off to sleep as the woman tucked them back in.
"Poor little things," Carolyn whispered. She sat down heavily on the couch in the rec room as Áinel sat across from her. "They've lost about everything that was important to them."
Áinel was at a loss. Seraphim were not the type to say encouraging words or make small talk with humans. It just wasn't in their nature. But the part of her that remembered being human felt a sense of concern for Carolyn. "You should get some rest," she finally said.
Carolyn shook her head. "I'm fine. I'm not even that tired."
The Seraph gritted her teeth silently as the slight jarring sound of a lie moved across her ears. She reminded herself that the woman was simply trying to be strong and wasn't lying for evil reasons.
"Carolyn, I can...tell that you are exhausted. None of us need any sleep and you won't be able to help the children ifyou are not well rested. Don't worry.."
The human looked at Áinel smiled in response. "Sorry. I guess that telling you anything other than the truth is a bad idea."
"No matter your reasons, yes." Áinel smiled at her and found a blanket. "Just sleep. We'll protectyou."
Áinel watched for a few minutes as the woman gave in and drifted off to sleep. Satisfied that Raniel was making a patrol around the inside of the building, she followed the sound of Ahrie's voice.
"We are going to have to find transportation away from here," she said without introduction, leaning slightly against a wall.
"That's covered already," Eric answered. "A Djinn of Fleurity's was kind enough to leave me his van after I killed him. We should clean it before driving it, but it's big enough for all of us."
"That battered thing? You are certain that will be safe for the children?" Not that Áinel really needed to ask, but it came out anyway.
Eric shrugged. "The seatbelts seem to be in working order. If worst comes to worst, we can drive it far enoughto get to a car dealer and take a better vehicle."
"Very well. Which brings up the question of where are we going?"
"In all honesty, I was hoping that you might have an idea. It's obviously not going to be safe for us to remain here though."
Ahrionel stepped over to a large, brightly colored map hung on the wall. It had been intended to help teach children geography, but it suited their purpose as well.
"We have to get the humans away from the blasted cities. Problem is, the fallout will be heading this way, and we may not be able to outrun it, even if we let Raniel drive." He paused,studying the map. "We'll have to go east and south, but that's all I can guess right now."
Raniel and Lanus entered the room as Ahrionel was explaining where to head. The Ofanite looked at the Cherub in interest. "I get to drive?"
Lanus flinched at the question and gave Eric a look of long suffering.
Eric grinned at Raniel in answer. "Well, we still need to find a vehicle that will get us there and survive the trip. Are you any good with cars? Maybe you could help me with the van and tell me what you think."
Raniel simply grinned. "Well, sure. Now?"
"Absolutely. We should be on the move as soon as the children wake up."
Raniel nodded. "After you, then. I don't have any more shirts to spare if your Soldier shoots me again." He followed Eric outside, and was soon crawling over, into, and under the van. Ashe began to examine it, his speech began to speed up.
"It'snotgreat, but it'lldofornow. Can't imaginethatit'srealefficientwith gasthough, that's goingtobeabigproblem. Stuff'sgoingtoberealscarce,realsoon. Samething with foodanddrinkforthehumans, scavengingwillprobablybelimitedthentoo."
"So you think we're better off just taking a newer one?"
"Absolutely. Is there a dealernearbythat we canhit?"
"There are a couple. We might even be able to get a motor home as well."
"I thinkwe'll needroomtoexpand, or somethingreallybig,"the Ofanite said thoughtfully. "Eitherthatortwobigvans, but we'llstillhaveproblems withfuel nomatter whatwe..." his speech accelerated to incoherence as he rattled off different possibilities, seeming to forget Eric was even there.
Eric attempted to interject as best he could. "One large van or a mobile home would be best for us right now. The big concern is making sure what we find can last for a while and getting food for the children."
The Ofanite slid out from under the van and slowed his words down to something more recognizable. "Yeah, kindafigured...thatwe need to keep an eye on them. Especially that boy with the rifle;Ahrionel seems to like him."
The Malakite stared out at the streets. Things looked peaceful for now. The two angels hadn't even heard a shot in a while. "So what do you think Raniel? Should we keep this van and move on in the morning?"
"Makes sense. Where are we going?"
The Malakite smiled. "You're the Wheel. You tell us."
Ranie's toothy grin was slightly disturbing. "I'm sure we'll find a good road."
Back in the center, Áinel and Lanus were keeping an eye outside. Lanus managed to persuade Jamie to get some sleep. The boy had protested for a bit, but was now deeply asleep. Áinel watched the boy for a moment then turned to face her friend.
"In all the centuries I had heard about Armageddon,I didn't think that it would end like this."
Lanus grunted. "Being a fugitive even after our forces won is certainly not what I expected."
"At least with Eric, we have an extra weapon onour side."
Áinel looked at the Malakite curiously. "You don't approve of him?"
"I am uncertain of him, which is not the same thing. Given his former Superior-"
"Former," Áinel stressed. "And I've seen him in a fight, Lanus. He's not the kind that would back down."
Lanus looked down at Áinel. "I know that. But if he stays with us, and we find Michael, he will need to pledge himself toWar."
"Give him a chance to prove himself, Lanus."
The Malakite nodded. "I will. Just like I give everyone else."
Raniel and Eric's return cut them off, the Ofanite grinning widely. "I think we can use it for now," he confirmed. It's tight, but it'll do."
Eric looked at Lanus and Áinel. "At the least it should get us out of town quickly enough."
"And he said I could drive!" Raniel interjected happily.
"And I suggested that Raniel would know the best way to get where we are going." Eric replied.
"It's your kids' necks you're risking," Lanus droned.
Raniel looked insulted. "I'm a good driver. Honest! I've gotten better!"
"Enough," Ahrionel interrupted. Ranie, get back on patrol for now. Lanus, go rest your mind." The look on his face said that he wasn't going to listen to any arguments.
Once the two were gone, Ahrie sighed. "Don't mind them, they really are quite close. Ranie will keep your kids safe while he's driving."
"I had no doubt about that." He watched the two wander off to separate areas of the center. "They just looked like they needed to say that to each other. So do any of you havean idea where we are going?"
"To find Michael." Ahrie paced back over to the map. "We have to stay away from the areas that were nuked of course, but as we said the fallout is going to move faster than we can. Eric... I don't know how we're going to deal with that. We should be able to avoid it for a day or two... maybe three if we're lucky, but I think it's going to take either Janus or God itself directly intervening to eliminate the problem."
"What about the one you are following?" Áinelasked.
"So far he's moving south from here. But we can't count on him taking a direct route, not with the pursuit."
Eric touched the map and listened silently as the two Servitors of War talked. When there was a break in their conversation,he looked over at Ahrionel. "Who is on our side on all this? I know that we are fighting against Uriel and Sariel, but what else isgoing on with Heaven?"
"Who is openly on our side? Gabriel only. Who else may be supporting us? Janus, although he remains in Heaven for now. From what little we've heard, David's troops are, of all things, divided. Some side with us, some side with Uriel. Idon't know where David himself is, the rumours place him on Earth somewhere...if you choose to listen to rumours."
"That is all we really know," Áinel finishesfor Ahrie. "We left in rather a hurry."
"So we are in the middle of another rebellion against Heaven." Eric replied.
Ahrionel paused a long moment as he considered his answer. "We oppose Uriel's faction," he said at last. "We know that the War continues, and we will not bow to Uriel's tyranny. Wewill not sit idly by while he and Sariel try to kill off as much of humanity as they can, and bring the rest under his rigid rule.
"But we still love Heaven, and God who gave us all life. I... I don't know if that's a rebellion against Heaven or not." The weight has settled visibly on Ahrie now, his face drawn, his jaw set. Áinel hesitated, and then gripped his shoulder.
Eric gripped the Cherub's other shoulder and smiled. "At least I found others and I don't have to face it alone."
The children woke up fairly early. Eric stepped outside cautiously to survey the area. The sky was dark although the rush of Essence into him indicated that the sun had risen. Ominous black clouds swirled overhead. As he stared in horror, Lanus walked up behind him.
"It looks like fallout from the warheads as well as the comet," the older Malakite remarked.
"We'll need jackets for the children in addition to food. The van's tank is quite full so that's one less thing to worry about."
"Good. We may be able to lash water and fuel to the roof for now, to make room for everyone. If we can find somewhere to stock up on containers of fuel, we should do so, as much as we can carry. How much food and water, and spare clothing, do you have here, for everyone?"
"Not very much, I'm afraid. We kept some blankets and cots because parents around here would work late and Carolyn and I managed to fill up several large jugs of water. We never expected anything like this though."
Lanus nodded. "And clothes?"
"None other than what the children bring with them. And we should also take some of the toys and coloring books as well."
The older Malakite frowned. "You're kidding."
"No, I'm not," Eric replied sharply. "I appreciate the need for traveling as lightly as we can, but these are human children we're dealing with as well. They are cold and scared and we need to keep things around to take their minds off what's going on."
Lanus remained silent for a few moments before answering. "Good point. You understand their welfare better than we would."
"Stick around long enough, and I'll have them calling you Uncle Lanus."
Lanus winced slightly. "Just what I've always wanted. More ammo for Raniel."
"He'd find something on his own anyway. Now,I was thinking that Raniel and I could make a supply run. He'd know the best ways to get to a few places, and I'd know what the children would need."
Inside the room, Lisa had started crying. Unfortunately,Áinel was the closest adult figure. She knelt awkwardly by the girl's cot.
"What is it, young one?"
"I'm scared," she sniffled. "I had a bad dream that a bad man was coming after me, and wanted to hurt me. And I want my mommy."
Áinel was at a loss. The girl's dream could be true; Uriel's followers would try to kill the child for the mark on her hand.
"You are Lisa?"
The girl nodded, sniffling again.
"Well, Lisa, it is alright to be scared. Dreams like that can be very scary, but Mister Macaulife, Miss Davis, my brothers and I, are going to do everything we can to keep the bad men from hurting you, or anyone here."
"Miss Davis said we have to go away."
Áinel nodded. "Yes. We are going to try to find my... boss, whois trying to stop the bad ones."
"Will he make them go away?" Lisa looked up with wet eyes.
"He will try."
Lisa crawled out of the cot with her blanket and climbed into Áine's lap. The Seraph fought down a moment of panic, and slowly wrapped a comforting arm around the child... and wondered what on earth she was supposed to do now.
Raniel poked his head around the corner and grinned as he saw the distressed look on Áine's face.
Áinel glared at him and whistled in the Celestial tongue. "Great help you are. Find Eric or Carolyn and see about getting some food for her."
Raniel winked and took off looking for the others. The child was crying again.
"Now now, Lisa. You are safe now." She held the girl close, and rocked slowly. She had heard somewhere that could help calm a child.
Áinel had never known her own mother; the woman had died giving birth to her. Her father and brothers were little comfort, but other women in the village had helped. She dredged an ancient tune up from the bottom of her mind, something her nurse had sung centuries ago, and hummed it quietly.
Carolyn got to the room as the middle children were planting themselves on either side of the Seraph, gently touching her legs. Even Jaime was watching, although from his cot.
Carolyn smiles at the distressed Seraph and callef the children over. "So what's the plan now?"
Áinel carefully unfolded herself, stood and crossed to the human. "I am uncertain. I believe Raniel and Eric are going... shopping." The sound of the van being cranked to life outside seemed to confirm this. "I hope Eric is up to that."
"Well, there shouldn't be very many people out and around. And he's able to..."
Carolyn stopped as she saw the look on Áinel'sface. "Ah. You referring to Raniel?"
At the Seraph's nod, Carolyn grinned. "He's pretty nice though. What kind of angel is he?"
"Ofanite. Their talent is for motion. Imagine your smallest child with a large amount of, say, espresso. That would be Raniel being slow."
"Ah. Good thing we don't keep sugary snacks around here then." She shakes her head in amazement. "It's funny, Eric is the only one who has worked here longer than me. And all this time, he was an angel. I take it that you've been hiding out on Earth all this time?"
Áinel cringed slightly. "It is not really 'hiding out.' We are given assignments by our superiors, tasks to carry out on this plane. We appear in these forms to blend in with humanity and do our assigned work. Sometimes it may be to deal with a specific situation, other times simply to observe, or protect, or something like that."
She looked at her own vessel for a moment. "Those of us who have chosen to oppose the forces now in power, who destroyed our Hearts, cannot assume our true forms on this plane. Of course,if we could, that action would alert any angel or demon nearby that we were here."
Carolyn and Áinel headed towards the small kitchen that was set up. She got out some bowls and poured cereal for the children. "Here you go, guys. We'll try to get more when we are out on the road."
As the children sat down with their food, Carolyn offered a donut to Áinel as she took one for herself. "When Eric told me what he was, he did imply that he was sent to protect this place. Now from what I understand, we need to worry about other angels more than demons right now?"
Áinel turned the donut over and looked at it curiously before taking a cautious nibble. "Most of the demons are broken and in retreat. There is some slight danger, as not allof them are accounted for, however our immediate concern are those who should be our brethren. The Archangels of Purity and Death hunt thosewho oppose them, and..." she broke off, glancing at the children. "And the rest may not be good for small ears to hear, not now."
"And who do you serve, if you don't mind me asking?"
"We serve the Archangel of War," Áinel answeredquietly, more than half expecting the human to shy away now, or ask herto leave.
To the Seraph's surprise, Carolyn just quietly acknowledged this and continued to work on her donut. Looks like mundane humans could be far tougher than a lot of angels understood.
Lanus' arrival precluded anything else the women were going to say. "They've gone to get what supplies they can,"he told them. "So far it's quiet out there. Very quiet."
Áinel smiled and relaxed a bit. She knew that as a Malakite of War, Lanus could hear when a threat was approaching them. "So he was brave enough to let Raniel drive? I am impressed."
Lanus shrugged. "He is a Virtue, after all,"as if that explained it all. His eyes fell on the box of donuts. "Are those fresh?"
Carolyn handed the box over. "They were yesterday. Help yourself."
"Good enough." He grabbed one and wandered off.
The streets were deserted as the van rumbled down. Within ten minutes, Raniel had proven that the vehicle could take incredibly sharp turns and changes in direction without damage to either itself or the passengers. The Ofanite was having a rapid conversation with Eric who was having some problems in trying to get a word in.
Raniel pulled up to a shop Eric indicated, althoughit looked deserted, still chattering quickly. "Sothats how wehandledthatone. Doesn'tlooklike anyone'shomehere, should weletourselvesin?"
The Walmart store was dark inside and the parking lot was abandoned. The Malakite said a silent prayer that there would be decent supplies inside. Of course the fact that Raniel was guided here made the odds very good that this stop would be a good one. He smiled at the Ofanite. "Yes, we should. There-"
Raniel hopped out of the van and was already headingtowards the door.
"-doesn't seem to be anyone is guarding it," Eric finished quietly.
Raniel simply walked up to the front door, whichappeared as though someone else had already helped themselves. The Ofanite hopped over the broken glass and edged inside, quickly darting away from the door. Eric followed close behind and checked the area. The store had been ransacked rather well; clothes were strewn all over the floor, glass display cases had been shattered and inventory had been scattered. Eric shook his head in sorrow at the waste. He glanced at Raniel who was pacing around the cash registers.
"We need warm jackets and a few changes of clothes for the children as well as Carolyn. It looks like we can get some fuel and water containers also."
Raniel pointed to a cart that had somehow survived the looting. "Fill'erup. Betterhurrythough, somethingdoesn'tfeelright. Stayclose."
Eric nodded and grabbed the clothing first. He hoped that he managed to get the sizes right at least. Several winter coats on a clearance bin were snapped up and the two headed towards sporting goods. "What's wrong, Rani?"
"Don'tknow, justinstinct." He grabs some boxesof ammo. "Thesefitanyofyourguns?"
Eric glances at the boxes that the Ofanite grabbed and reads the label. His eyes widen in surprise. "All of them do. How did you...never mind. You just knew."
Rani smiled. "Youlearnquick. JustlikeLanus,heknowsnot toaskanymore."
There weren't many boxes left, most had already been scavenged. Satisfied, Raniel began to wander to other sections of the store. He paused briefly in the books and pocketed something before gesturing towards the children's books. "Anythingherethe littleonesmightlike?"
Eric smiled gratefully at Raniel. "Quite a few things, actually." The Malakite grabbed several that looked appropriateand headed towards the back. "Sleeping bags, coloring books and a few toys as well."
"Toysarethisway!" the Ofanite said enthusiastically,"and thcampinggear iscloseby." Still, despite his ever-present smile,Eric noticed the angel kept one hand close to his pistol.
The Malakite kept up as best he could. He caught the sleeping bags that Raniel threw and tossed them into his cart.
Raniel dumped an armload of coloring books and crayons into the cart before peering down another toy aisle. "Weshouldprobablygetmoreblankets andpillows. Forthekids."
Eric began to weave the cart to catch the supplies that Raniel was throwing. After a few minutes, they managed to load it up and headed back towards the van.
"All right, Raniel; we'll lash the fuel containersup on top with the bungee cords, put the ammo towards the back seats andfill the water jugs up. Ready to leave?"
"Definitely. Lookslikewegot enoughtolastustillwegetwherewe'regoing."
"And do you have an idea where we're going?"
The Ofanite opened his mouth, then quickly snapped it shut as he gazed at the horizon. "I do, but it's hard to reallypin down. Right now, it's like I have only a general direction. Ready to go now?"
Back at the center, Lanus was sitting with Jamieand helping him with his post. The Malakite was giving the boy pointers on handling the rifle properly.
"The main thing to remember is exhale when you are getting ready to shoot and gently squeezing the trigger. You can tell it's a good shot when you're caught by surprise as it shoots."
Jamie nodded and glanced outside. His eyes widened and he took position by the window. There was a large group of people coming close to the center. They looked like some of the rougher types that lived out in the city and were certainly dressed the part.
Each one of them had some kind of hand held weapon at the ready and they advanced towards the building with a look of determinationon their face.
Lanus sighed as his Resonance registered the threat. He ducked back long enough to tell Ahrionel what was going on, trusting him to round up Áinel as well.
Raniel suddenly paused and looked up in alarm, eyeswidening. "Hurryhurryhurry," he fussed at Eric. "They'vegottroubleatthecenter." As soon as Eric was in the van, the Ofanite gunned it, hoping Eric could pull the door shut from inside and hold on.
Eric jumped in without hesitation and slammed the door just as Raniel slammed on the accelerator. "How can you tell?"
Two sharp turns sent everything that they had gathered all over the van. Raniel's eyes were wild. "Justcan. It'soneof thosethingsthatMichaels people cando. That and Ahrietoldme. Hangon."
The Malakite buckled himself up and checked his pistol. He figured at this point he was better off remaining silent as the Ofanite focused on the task at hand.
It was an interesting phenomenon hearing an angel curse without being blasphemous. Áinel had worked it to an art form, and was holding nothing back. Her pistol simply didn't have the range to do anything to the figures.
The figures stopped just on the lawn. Oneof them moved slightly ahead of the others and faced the door. "Hello! Come on out. We are here to help."
The sigh across the Symphony told Áinel thatthey were telling the Truth as they knew it. The set to Lanus' jaw held a dissenting opinion. "So who goes out to reason with them?"he asked.
"You and I, I think. Let Ahrie stay here with the boy to back us up. Eric and Rani should be on their way... the longer we can stall them the more time they will have to get here. Perhaps you can convince them we are... other than who we are." She cringed at the suggestion, but as long as she was not speaking the untruths...
Lanus smiled at her. "Of course, sister." The Virtue looked over his shoulder. "Jamie? Remember, breathe ou and gently squeeze the trigger. Aim for the center as well." He unlocked the doors and guided Áinel outside as Ahrionel locked behind them.
Instinct told the two angels to stay slightly apart,so as to present separate targets, and so that they would not interfere with drawing weapons. But, since they had to appear as human,they drifted closer together. They stopped near the door.
"Who are you?" Lanus called out.
There were about a dozen in the group, an even mixtureof men and women. They stopped on the sidewalk leading up to the front door and kept an eye on the building. The one who spoke stepped forward. He smiled at Lanus charmingly, although both War angels could detect a certain readiness in him. "Be at peace, myson. We are angels sent here to help."
Lanus glanced at Áinel and caught the barely perceptive nod. The Seraph could sense the truth in the speaker, but she had a feeling that they might not welcome the kind of help that was being offered.
Lanus snorted. "And I'm the Pope. What do you really want?"
The man looked shocked at Lanus' blunt statement. Before he could answer, one of the women in the group whispered in his ear. The speaker nodded and smiled at Lanus. "Elaine just informed me that you are a Choir Brother of hers. I am Imnah, Seraph of Uriel. Who am I addressing?"
Lanus glared at them all. "You're addressing someone who's asking you to leave. Your help is not wanted here."
Imnah frowned at Lanus' defiance. "We are here doing our Archangel's bidding. The final battle is over and all that is left is the final cleansing and Judgment. Of course, if you are telling me that you are going against the will of God..." The Seraph gestured at thegroup that was beginning to take up positions for fighting. "Then we shall be forced to judge you as well. Please don't ask us to do this."
Áinel spoke up at last. "You imply that it is the will of God that His angels fight one another, when the Fallen are still at large. I find that very difficult to believe. Please, leave us. We do not wish to fight you, but we will do so if you continue in this manner."
"Fight each other? Hardly. The forcesof Heaven hunt the Fallen and judge the humans that are still left. And it is Uriel whom we are acting through."
"We are neither human nor Fallen, as your companion pointed out. By your own words, you have no business with us. Leave." Áinel stood her ground, although her hand itched for her sword.
One of the men in the group stepped forward. "We seem to have a different definition of Fallen. We know that Michael and Gabriel have turned against Heaven. So tell us...who do you serve?" The rest of the group begins to reach for weapons.
"Truth, and Honor," Lanus stated. "You are not welcome here." His hand slid under his jacket, as Áinel'sfollowed suit.
One of the angels in the group looked at them in astonishment. "War angels!" he said. This was enough to get everyone in the group to draw their weapons openly. They began to ring Áinel and Lanus in.
Imnah's eyes were cold as he stared at them. "You are outnumbered here, children of Michael. Don't make us destroy you."
Lanus drew out a sword handle from inside his jacketand whispered a quick word. A column of flame roared to life and took the shape of a blade. "You aren't taking us or the people in that building."
A shot rang out from the center and caught one of Uriel's angels. He fell with a grunt of pain and dropped his knife.
Lanus grinned at the remaining angels. "Besides, they don't want to go either."
Áinel let them come, sword in one hand, pistol in the other. The morning grew loud with the ringing of traded shots.
Eric felt the van lift off a wheel as Raniel took a tight corner. They must be getting close, they could hear shots in the distance now.
Áinel and Lanus were back to back and theangels of Purity were closing in on them. Both of them had been hurt but they held on to their weapons. Their opponents were wary about closing in though; between Áinel's speed and Lanus' sword, their numbers had been reduced by four. Getting too close to them ran the risk of hurting a friend.
Lanus looked over his shoulder. "Well, this goes down as the shortest act of defiance that I can recall seeing."
Áinel nodded in answer. As she kept her eyes on the Servitorsof Purity, she saw five new figures approaching. She felt resignation at this point. It looked like reinforcements for her enemies had just arrived. They were dressed in the style that she had seen in most street gangs. Each one had a bat or chain in his hand and advanced with a murderous look in their eyes.
But to the Seraph's surprise, they fell on the angels of Purity with howls of rage.
Áinel blinked, glanced at Lanus, then the two continued the battle. She had to give the Purity angels some credit, they fought fiercely. However, they were outnumbered now. One seemed to be looking for an escape route, however she was preoccupied with her immediate opponent.
The Purity angels fell back towards the road. Two of the newcomers were down and it looked like they wouldn't be getting up again. As Áinel and Lanus closed on the angels, they saw the van careen perilously around the corner at speeds far greater than what a sane person would consider safe.
The Servitors of Purity had a moment to realize what was coming towards them before the van smashed into them. Their vessels were thrown several yards down the road before rolling to a stop. The van came to rest right next to Lanus and Raniel was nose to nose with Malakite.
"Hi! Looks like we missed most of the fun!"
"Just get out here and," Lanus raised his arm to drive his sword into the throat of a Purity angel trying to jump on his back, "help clean up."
Áinel and another angel went down in a tumble of limbs. They landed with Áinel on her back, sword arm pinned, the other angel trying to keep her there while searching for her throat. Áinel let out a vicious scream of rage and started pummeling the angel, who was quickly finding himself on the defensive.
The remaining human gangers were happily finishing off another angel, the rest had fled, including Imnah. Raniel darted over to help the humans, while Lanus hurried to Áinel.
The Malakite caught her arm on a swing. "Áinel...Áinel, pay attention. He's dead. No," he caught the other arm, "Sister, look at me. Look at me! He's dead. Turning the vessel into a pulp won't do anyone any good, including you. Come on now."
He eased her off the body, supporting her when her injured leg gave out and guiding her back towards the building where Ahrie met them at the door. The Cherub nodded at Lanus' silent request,and half led, half carried Áinel inside. Lanus limped over towards Rani and the rest.
Áinel was shaking badly as Ahrionel guided her into a back room and eased her to the floor. Her leg was bleeding,but not seriously enough to cause that. Ahrie gently got her pants off to look at the wound. He focused his thoughts for a moment, then Sung to heal her. The wound closed, although it remained pink.
Áinel murmured vague thanks, then looked at her hands, sticky with the blood of the enemy. "We… we killedthem…" she stuttered. "We killed angels."
Ahrie took her hand. "We knew it would cometo this when we fled, dearest one."
"Knowing… doing… it is different." She leaned into his shoulder, sobbing quietly. Ahrie simply held her, stroking her hair, murmuring reassurances for several long minutes. When she finally calmed down, he pulled the little box from his pocket.
"Áine, I… I want you to have this."
She blinked at him in confusion, then took the offered box. She opened it carefully, then looked up at him.
"Ahrie… Ahrie, it is lovely, but…"
"No buts. Please, just take it."
She continued to stare at him. "Why do you do this?"
Ahrie looked deep into her eyes. "Because in all the centuries I have spent scouring this world for assets to War, you are the most precious I have ever found."
The humans that had come to their aid nodded at Lanus respectfully. "Handled that pretty good. Thanks."
"We should be thanking you. Although we must ask, ah, who are you, and why did you jump in?" A tiny hand motion cut off Rani's answer.
"These bastards killed our leader. Called him a traitor. Not that he didn't put up a fight, but there were too many of them."
Rani was quivering at this point. "Galenel? They killed Galenel?"
The human nodded sadly. "Yeah, they did. Who are you anyway?"
Raniel frowned a second, then waved off the man'si mpertinent tone. "Raniel of War. Galenel was a good friend of mine. I knew he was out here and training you guys."
Lanus looked at the human and the Ofanite for amoment. "How utterly fascinating. Are you going to clue us in as to who they are Rani?"
Eric stepped out of the van looking no worse for wear at the treatment his Vessel received from Raniel's driving. "His name is Jerry and you are looking at one of the groups of people outhere that serve Stone."
Jerry acknowledged Eric's presence with a curt nod. "Hey there, Children Angel. How's things at the center?"
Lanus nodded in acknowledgement. "Explains a lot. Come inside?" He glanced toward the center as the Symphony rang with the sound of a Song being used.
Eric shook Jerry's hand and guided the gangers inside. "Get on in here, Jerry. Things are all right, but that's not going to last long."
The humans stepped inside behind Lanus and looked around silently. The children stared at the newcomers nervously but were quickly calmed by the fact that Eric and Carolyn weren't worried about them being there.
Eric settled the gangers and made introductions. Lanus glanced at each of them in turn, nodding as he felt the strength in each of them. "So you guard this neighborhood?"
"For about three years now." Jerry answered. "Never thought that it would come to this, though. We've been killing the Hellsworn that try to get their claws in here. Had this neighborhood pretty safe too which is saying a lot. Next thing you know, our angel is getting killed by one of his own."
"If those bastards killed him, then he had chosen to oppose their leader and his tyranny. Things are unwell Above."
"I kinda figured that." Jerry shrugged. "Well, I'm going to need some new people and soon. The three of us are all that's left."
Eric's expression turned cold. "I know you aren't talking about recruiting these kids."
Jerry's hands shot up. "Whoa, whoa...easy Children Angel! Wouldn't think of it; There are some scared peoplein this neighborhood that need to learn some courage. That's who we're looking for."
Lanus looked stoically at Jerry. "You realize that those Servitors of Purity are going to be back in greater numbers?"
"We got some surprises for them. I ain't too worried."
"And they'll kill you when they catch you."
Jerry grinned in answer. "Then we'll go toHeaven and keep fighting. That's the way of things, isn't it?" The other gangers laughed in answer.
"And we'll be sure to take some of them with us,"one added.
"What about you?" Jerry asked. "You think you can hold this place?"
Eric shook his head in answer. "We're not going to hold this place, Jerry. We're leaving. There are others who don't agree with what's going on and we are going to look for them."
The human nodded. "And the kids who didn't get picked up, you need to get them somewhere safe of course. What else do you need?"
"Since Raniel and I just made a supply run we're fine in that regard. We're going to keep the children with us. It's probably the safest place for them. But I have a favor to ask of you." Eric reached in his pocket and pulled out his motorcycle keys. "I need you to take care of my bike until I get back."
Jerry looked startled as he took they keys. "You're serious." He shook his head. "All right, Eric, I'll do it."
"Good. Listen, we can't stay, we've got work to do. You be alright on your own until you can leave?"
"We'll be fine. Made it this long and this far." Jerry looked over at Raniel. "Sorry about your friend. ;He was good to us."
The Ofanite nodded. "He pointed you in the right direction, the road was your own. You'll meet again, one way or the other."
"Sounds good." Jerry answered. With a gesture, the gangers started to head out. Jerry looked over his shoulder one last time. "Do me a favor as well? Kill a few of those bastards for us, would you?"
Lanus nodded stoically, although as soon as they were gone, Rani started fidgeting again.
Eric looked around the room. "Where's Áineland Ahrionel at?"
Lanus raised an eyebrow. "I would have thought Christopher would teach you better grammar." Although his tone is dry, he smirked at the younger Malakite.
"Backthatway," Raniel points in the general direction.
"I figure if I am going to be around War angels,I have to keep my speech succinct." Eric retorted back with a grin. The Malakite headed towards the direction that Raniel pointed.
After a moment of hunting, Eric found the other two angels. They were still on the floor, Áinel curled intoAhrie's shoulder. She was mostly still, although the occasional shudder would still shake her body.
Ahrionel nodded at Eric as he got closer. "I assume it's time for us to leave?"
"Yes, Ahrie. Áinel, are you-
The Seraph turned to face Eric. "I will be...better.This wasn't what I expected."
Ahrionel gave her a reassuring pat on her shoulderbefore looking at the Malakite. "The idea that we had to fight our own kind is more painful than we thought."
Eric shuddered as well. "The only thing that is keeping me going is the belief that we are doing the right thing and the children that are depending on us."
"Yes. Remember that, I have a feeling this will get worse before it gets better." Ahrie helped Áinelup, and to a sink where she could clean her face. Trusting her alone now, he followed Eric back out.
The trio walked out into the main room. Lanus and Raniel were helping the children get ready (They distinctly heard Raniel make a remark about "Uncle Lanus will protect you" but chose not to commenton it). Jamie looked up at Eric as the boy slung his rifle.
"We're ready, Mr. Macaulife."
Eric clapped the boy fondly on the shoulder. "So are we, Jamie."
"And we'll be safe where we're going?"
The Malakite smiled in assurance. "Yes we will. We just have to get there first."
Áinel and Carolyn joined them after a moment,the Seraph pressed into duty carrying miscellaneous supplies. Her eyes were still slightly red, but she seemed focused again.
The angels loaded the van quickly with Carolyn and Jamie's help. The younger children could sense that something very big was happening and they stood in silence. Eric buckled them in and showed them the large bag of crayons and coloring book that Raniel managed to take from the store which seemed to cheer them up.
Within a few minutes, everyone but Carolyn and Eric were inside the van. The Malakite walked up to Carolyn and put an arm around her. She leaned against him for comfort.
"We have to leave this behind?" she asked.
"Those angels that we fought won't be the first we deal with. We'll stop by your apartment and let you get what you need and then we get on the road."
She nodded and the two climbed into the van. Raniel put the vehicle into gear and the group began to head down the road.
A few minutes later, there was nothing more thana darkened building and an empty parking lot to mark where a group of humansand angels had worked to bring a better life for some children.
On to Chapter 3