As much as they tended to squabble,
Raniel and Lanus worked well together when it came down to it. Lanus
claimed the front seat without argument, and helped guide Raniel around
potential problems. Or course, this meant the van was taking an elaborate
path, but still approaching the edges of the city.
"Trustme," the Ofanite said as he drifted to the center lane."I know what I'm doing."
Áinel looked like she was ready to flee already, Lisa had planted herself between Áinel and Ahrionel and was chattering away as she discussed her coloring project. Eric was sitting in the back seat next to Carolyn. The two managed to grab some extra clothes and water from her apartment as well as a few personal things that she didn't wish to part with. None of the angels minded; the humans would need whatever they could to help them through the times ahead.
Jamie was sitting next to Michael. The younger child had fallen asleep within a few minutes. Jamie was still looking shell-shocked over the barren streets that greeted them as they rolled along the freeway.
Ahrionel was staring resolutely ahead, seemingly lost in thought. "So faint," he murmured.
Eric looked over at the Cherub. "But enough to guide you?"
"My target is moving quickly. Perhaps he found a faster mode of transportation than this. For now, I can still find him."
Lisa held up her coloring for Áinel to inspect. The Seraph wasn't sure, but it seemed the child had tried to make a picture of her.
Eric grinned at the poor Seraph's discomfort. Áinel was the kind of angel that could be up to her elbows in blood and not flinch, but dealing with a child was obviously stumping her. He made a note to help her out when he could.
Raniel cut across all the lanes and took an off ramp. Ahrionel looked over in puzzlement. "Raniel? Why are-"
"Kidslooktired, humansgottastrech. Webeenontheroad forhourswecanrest a bit. We're fine."
Without another word, Raniel parked the van in a rest stop. "Everybody out!" he called cheerfully.
Lisa quickly caught Áinel’s hand and half-dragged her to the bathroom. Ahrionel watched for a moment, and then shook his head. "I haven't seen her that distressed in centuries."
Eric smiled. "Children can do that to many adults, let alone angels. Lucky for Áinel that Lisa's a bit older than a toddler."
"She'll adapt. She always does."
Nearby, Raniel was studying the younger boy, Michael. "Y'know, you're far too sullen for your age."
The boy looked at him balefully.
Raniel simply grinned wider and tickled the boy, sending him into squealing giggles.
Eric whirled and drew his gun in one motion at the sound. Lanus arched an eyebrow at Eric’s actions. "It's just Rani,” he said calmly. “The boy's safe."
The younger Malakite nodded and put his weapon away. With his back turned, Eric missed the approving nod that Lanus made.
Lisa and Áinel emerged from the bathroom, Áinel looking somewhat pained. "Look, a squirrel!" Lisa said, darting off to try to get a better look.
Áinel took off after her. "Lisa, be careful! If you hurt yourself, Mr. Macaulife will be very mad at me." She caught the child's hand, and stayed with her as they watched the furry creature jumping through the trees.
The child looks like she is about to protest, but Carolyn emerges from the bathroom. "You heard her, Lisa. It could be very dangerous to go wandering right now."
Lisa nods and allowed Áinel to lead her back to the van. Carolyn smiles at Áinel reassuringly. "You do pretty well with her. I have a question though; do you have a last name? We don’t let the children call us by our first names"
Áinel had to think about it for a moment. "When such things are necessary, I will use the name Finnegan." She cracks a slow smile at the children. "When I was her age, only the nobles had sir-names."
Carolyn nodded in satisfaction. "Finnegan it is. One of the things we made sure of with the children is that they learn manners."
Áinel nods. "That is good. At least their spirits are a bit better." Still clutching Áinel’s hand, Lisa begins to hop around in some semblance of a child's dance.
Jamie walked from the bathroom back over to where Lanus and Eric are talking. The rifle had been slung on his body since he had stepped out of the van and was never far from his side. He nodded at the two angels and let a slight smile cross his face.
Lanus nodded at the young man. "How are you doing?"
"Fine," he answered quietly. "It's just so...silent out here. I'm not used to it."
Lanus nodded. "Understandable." He looked up at the dust clouds drifting in, high above. "You will come to relish the quiet times, though."
Jamie quietly acknowledges the Malakite's statement and climbed back in the van. Eric follows Lanus' gaze and stares at the dust clouds.
"That's going to hurt them, isn't it?"
Lanus squinted at the clouds. "Those, I think, are dust from the comet. It won't hurt them immediately, although it'll ruin the planet's systems. The fallout is what worries me." He whistled to his comrades, calling them back to the van.
“How long do you think we have until it catches up to us?" Eric replied.
Lanus took a deep breath, and closed his eyes as he concentrated. After a moment he opened his eyes again and shook his head. "I can't tell. A day, at least."
The group piled back into the van and Raniel put it in gear again.
The freeway was quiet and empty. The Ofanite had to weave from time to time to avoid accidents that had happened as people panicked. The angels would stop when they could, but had yet to come across any survivors.
At last, the freeway took them out of the city. The dust clouds looked fainter, but plants are already starting to wither. Even Raniel had stopped chattering by now, and focused his full attention on the road and Lanus' warnings.
Within the walls of New Jerusalem,
the Cathedral of Purity was humming with activity. Angels, Relievers
and blessed souls moved throughout the corridors to carry out the orders
of Uriel. Deep underground were the rooms where the Hearts of Uriel’s
angels were kept. The Archangel of Purity stood over several angels
that were wrapped around their Hearts. Each one of them had undergone
the horror of Corporeal death and was struggling to return to existence.
Behind Uriel was another Malakite. This one’s form was female but looked no less dangerous than any other Virtue in Heaven. She kept her eyes low as Uriel looked over his Servitors. The Archangel turned away abruptly and pointed at a Mercurian that was standing nearby.
“Do what you can for them. I need them back as quickly as possible.” As the angel hastened to obey, he looked at the silent Virtue.
“Elaine, look upon me and be not afraid. I do not hold you accountable for what happened to them.”
Elaine snarled in fury in spite of herself. “It was angels that did this, Archangel. Angels! They knew what we were yet they still fought us!”
Uriel put a restraining hand on her. “You served Laurence before he died, did you not?”
“Then I can fully understand your rage. As a Servitor of the Sword, it would be…difficult to grasp why angels of the One God could turn against us. Especially those that served War.”
Elaine shook with anger. “They act like the Fallen, but they are still angels, my lord!”
Uriel’s expression grew sad. “Do not worry, my child. They shall be held to full account for what they have done.” He placed a hand on her shoulder and guided her away from her friends.
“I shall summon you when they have recovered from Trauma my daughter. Go in peace.”
Elaine bowed and walked towards Laurence’s Cathedral. With the death of the Archangel of The Sword, it would normally have been empty. However, Uriel had decreed that any former Servitors of Laurence were allowed within. The angels of Laurence appreciated the gesture and they would return to the cathedral to pray.
The Cathedral was designed in the manner of a Catholic Church. Tall spires of grey stone reached to the sky. The stained glass was fashioned by the hands of blessed souls with a patience and skill that they could not have achieved on Earth. Elaine walked past the huge oak doors, stopped to dip her fingers in the cistern of holy water and make the sign of the cross. The ritual was a small comfort to her.
She took the first pew she came across and knelt. Things had become so confused as of late. The knowledge that angels would fight each other openly, yet still remain Unfallen was difficult to process. Perhaps it was God’s will, but if this was God’s will why were they fighting over it?
The Malakite stayed in the Cathedral long into the night.
The Groves were simply
a mess. The ground was stained with the blood of angels fighting
each other. Sariel stood over the body of the last Malakite he had
dispatched, the last of Michael’s elite that could be found. Most
of the rest were throughout the Groves where his followers had finished
them off. The fact that Sariel had lost more than three angels for
every one they struck down bothered him immensely.
The fact that Doxas still eluded him bothered him even more. One of his trusted lieutenants swore that he had seen her, wounded, retreating toward the Catacombs. He followed his servant there and saw the trail of blood leading into the cave mouth. Yet when they followed, the cave ended abruptly a few dozen yards inside.
Sariel bellowed for David, but the echoes of his own voice were the only answer he received.
Beyond the wall, the last of the Guard half-led, half-carried Doxas deeper into the Catacombs, praying silently that she would survive his wounds long enough to get her to Michael.
Elsewhere in the Groves, a cloaked figure paused and surveyed the scene. The Symphonic racket had drawn his attention, called him here, if too late. He spotted movement, and crouched near a fallen angel. The angel’s wings were stained with blood, whether his own or someone else’s unclear. He was bleeding, badly, from many wounds, and would not survive much longer without assistance.
The cloaked angel looked carefully, he knew this one. It was Nisroc, Mercurian Angel of Spies. “Tell me what happened here,” the cloak said quietly, cradling the dying angel.
Nisroc told of the attack on the Groves, told of what had happened to Michael, interrupted only by his wounds and difficulty breathing. He told of the Symphonic shift, and Gabriel’s flight.
Of course, an angel cannot speak untruth in Heaven, but the power of the Truth rung in Dominic’s ears as he listened. Uriel and Sariel had conveniently left these details out when they tried to explain Michael’s rebellion. The ramifications ran deep. This was not Just.
“Nisroc, listen to me,” the Archangel murmured. “I can heal you, but I cannot protect you while you remain in Michael’s service. Obviously I need to do some more investigating, but something is amiss here. I offer a place in my service, where Uriel and Sariel cannot touch you, until this is resolved. If you later choose to return to Michael, so be it.”
“You… would help War?” Nisroc choked.
“To see true Justice done, yes.”
Nisroc considered, his vision starting to fade. “My Heart… there,” he gestured weakly to a faint glimmer in a nearby tree. “No time to crush it before…” he had to pause to catch his breath. “I will enter your service… for now.”
Dominic rose and quickly retrieved the jewel. A quick mental urge was all it took to align it towards his service. He gently laid it on Nisroc’s chest and invoked the Song of Healing. Nisroc’s dreadful wounds sealed and color returned to the Intercessionist’s face.
The shadow of another fell over them. “Out of the way angel. The one you are sheltering is a traitor to Heaven.”
Dominic turned away from ministering to Nisroc and whirled to face Sariel. The Archangel of Death, thinking only that he had been ordering an angel aside, now faced the merciless gaze of the Archangel of Judgment. The Seraph’s many eyes burned into him. “This angel is in my service Sariel. Do you question my Judgment?”
Sariel had the sense to look and feel properly penitent. “No, Most Just. I was unaware that he was now in your service. I defer to your verdict.”
“Good. Then get out of my way.” He helped Nisroc up and out of the Groves, ignoring Sariel’s stare.
Back on Earth, evening had
started to fall, indicated only by the sky changing from dim to dimmer.
The children were quiet, not interested in the toys right this moment.
Lisa was leaning against Áinel, eyes open but wet. The angel kept
a protective arm around the child as they rode in silence.
Lanus whistled something urgent to Raniel, who immediately pulled of the road and under some low trees. "Stay quiet," the older Malakite whispered to the rest.
Áinel gently moved her arm away from Lisa and reached for her sword. Eric looked over at her curiously. The Seraph shook her head to prevent him from asking any questions.
Without warning came the roar of bikes on the road. None of the people in the van could see the riders, and everyone tensed as they waited for what would happen next.
The inside of the van was silent for a moment as the roar came louder, paused nearby, then at last moved on. Lanus waited until there was no trace of the sound before even breathing.
Eric looked over at Lanus. “Were they a threat?”
Lanus nodded. "Very much so. I suggest we wait a few more minutes for them to get farther away, they're still at the edge of my senses."
Carolyn consoled Jill, Mike and Lisa who were looking nervously out the window. Jamie's grip on his rifle tightened.
The van chugged back on the road under Raniel's guidance. Lanus kept his eyes locked forward for any sign of disturbance.
Eric smiled reassuringly at Carolyn. "We should be fine. They start drawing weapons then we can be concerned."
Áinel turned to glance at them and nodded. "And we said we would help keep the children safe." She holds Lisa again, gently stroking the girl's hair as she drifts off towards sleep. Ahrionel smiles at her. "Make a Cherub out of you yet, my dear."
Raniel chuckled at Ahrie’s remark. "Now, now...no need to be insulting."
"I'm not, and she knows it," the Cherub returned. Áinel nodded, cracking a smile
The van moved forward more cautiously as Raniel reluctantly took in Lanus' earlier warning. The roads were once again empty of life and the angels and humans began to relax. The children and Carolyn had moved to the rear of the large vehicle and dozed off. Within a few minutes the angels were the only ones awake.
Eric stared out the window and watched the scenery pass by him. Lanus glanced over and saw the look on his face.
"Still feeling the chains?"
"Does it get any easier to handle?"
The older Malakite shook his head. "Not at all. But when we get to where Michael is, I think we'll be whole again."
"And do you think that they would take me in?"
"Not without some kind of challenge," Raniel piped in. "Probably have to get into a good fight or two or three or four or-"
Lanus nudged the Ofanite. "Eyes front, Rani." He turned his attention back to Eric. "But what he says is essentially correct. You will have to be challenged. How good of a fighter are you?"
"You saw the two bodies outside the center?"
At Lanus and Raniel's nod, Eric continued. "One was human, one was demon. Bare hands on the human, tree branch on the Djinn. Took the Stalker's knife away from him and killed him with it."
Rani chuckled quietly, but wisely kept his mouth shut
Lanus ignored the Wheel as he surveyed Eric a bit more closely. "Resourceful, good. Michael will like that. Sounds like you found Eli's favor at some point, but that will help you with this."
"A couple of years ago, yes. I just thought he was a Master ranked angel that was asking me for help. Next thing you know, I'm getting thanked by the Archangel of Creation by being able to use his Malakite Resonance."
"Ultimately it will be your choice of course, you don't have to join us," Ahrionel added. "Chances are Gabriel will be looking to recruit as well."
"Isn't that your territory though?" Lanus asked.
Ahrie nodded. "Yes, but my Word won't stand against an Archangel. Not all of my recruits go to War, after all."
"Are you able to tell which Word the recruit would be better with or are you just a good judge of character?" Eric inquired.
"Usually I can just tell that someone has the potential," the Cherub answered. "Sometimes I find someone who has a very strong calling towards a certain Word, but that's not too common. Of course, a lot of my finds end up with War anyway."
Eric nodded. "Under normal circumstances, I'd be horrified at this discussion."
Áinel looked over at him. "And now?"
"It's still...unnerving. But the thoughts aren't that bad."
"Any big change like this will be hard," Rani piped up at last. "But I think you'd be a welcome addition if you choose to join War."
Eric smiled at Rani's statement. Having to re think who and what he was had been tough on him. And although he had served a peaceful Archangel, he began to realize that his future was going to be in the middle of the fighting.
He glanced over at Carolyn. The woman had been through a lot in the past day and she adapted to these changes without complaint. Humans were so incredibly adaptable to things that would have tied up any angel. Or worse, caused them to Fall.
Áinel looked over at Lanus and saw him fix his eyes forward. She could tell that he was still relatively uncomfortable about recruiting a peaceful angel for this.
Áinel’s attention started to drift away from the conversation as she recalled the recent events. Killing another angel was still weighing heavily on her, and Ahrie was just acting... strangely.
The van pulled into a stop
a few hours later. It was a rest stop that had been set aside many
years ago. There were gas stations, restaurants, and little else
that were set against an isolated background. Raniel hopped out and
bounded over to the gas station’s controls.
The other angels climbed out as Raniel began to open the door. It felt good to stretch a bit and the cool air was welcome. Lanus looked over at Eric and was about to ask a question when Raniel stepped out. The Wheel’s face was pale and he looked shaken to his soul.
Ahrionel walked up to him. “Raniel? What’s the matter?”
Raniel stayed silent and pointed towards the control room. Lanus and Eric bounded ahead and pushed the doors open.
The scene that greeted them was horrid. Five corpses were in the room. They had been butchered so thoroughly that they were only able to determine that there were three adults and two children. Even Lanus, centuries old and a veteran of many battles was unnerved at this. Against one wall was were symbols that had been written in blood. To humans, it looked like a meaningless scribble but to the angels, it spelled out a phrase in the language of Heaven.
For the glory of Purity.
The Virtues looked over the bodies. Lanus’ voice was hushed as he examined the precise wounds that had killed them.
“Why them?” he asked. “Why slaughter defenseless people?”
Eric gently touched the forehead of a little boy. He raised the body’s left hand and guided Lanus’ gaze to it. The altered Mark was there, the blood red 616 clearly visible even in the fluorescent lighting.
"There is no honor in this," Lanus grumbled.
Eric stared into Lanus' eyes. The cold fury held the older Virtue's attention. Eric's answer was so soft that he could barely hear it.
"Whichever one killed the children is mine. And I will make that...thing scream for mercy before I am done with it." Without even waiting for an answer, Eric stormed out of the building and headed towards the van.
Lanus was quick to follow. "Choir Brother, I'm as angry as you are but there is something that I just noticed."
Eric turned to face him but remained silent. Lanus quickly continued. "If it was angels that did this, there was no sound in the Symphony from murdering humans. It could make it harder to find them if they are indeed Soldiers of Purity."
Áinel scurried back outside to the humans. The angels had tried their best to shield the children from the carnage inside.
"What..." Carolyn started to ask.
Áinel drew her head down to murmur in the human's ear. "The ones we oppose have been here, and murdered innocents, all because a child was Marked." The angel's eyes drifted to Lisa again, where the child was sleepily nibbling on some stale food.
Carolyn followed Áinel’s gaze in horror. "Lisa has it too, doesn't she?"
Áinel nodded in answer. “The Mark was supposed to tell us who were the servants of Hell or who had the potential to become one. We were to fall upon them once the battle was over.”
“I thought that the number was supposed to be three sixes.” Carolyn replied in confusion.
“Something changed that. The only thing I can think is that it isn’t truly God’s will that they be killed.”
Raniel steeled himself and headed back into the building as the others talked. He kept a string of thoughts going in his head. I am a Wheel of Michael’s. I am a Servitor of War. I have stood on the battlefield and I have seen worse than this. But the thoughts did him little good as he stepped over the bodies. If he were human, he probably would be retching his guts out at this moment. He began to quietly turn the pumps on and hoped he remembered what he was doing.
He was so focused on what he was doing, that he failed to notice that Jamie had entered the room. The boy’s eyes widened in horror as he took in the sight of the broken bodies.
“Oh God. The other angels. They did this, right?”
Rani rounded on the boy. "GetoutgetoutgetOUT!" he yelled, chasing the startled boy out of the building. He regretted it almost instantly, and trotted out after Jamie. He stopped at the van, started to pump the gas.
"C'mere Jamie," he said with a tilt of his head. The boy hesitated, and then carefully came closer.
"I shouldn't have yelled at you," he offered, trying to keep his speech at a normal human speed. "Seeing that bothers me too. The answer is yes. That's the kind of cold hearts we're up against.”
The boy nodded a bit fearfully at Raniel then looked back at the room he had left. "Why would they do it? I mean...I thought you angels wouldn't hurt people."
Raniel sighed. "We wouldn't. They... I don't know how they got away with it. They did it because all of those poor people were Marked. I have trouble believing all of them deserved that though. But, those kind, this horrid thing... this is what we're fighting against."
Back by the van, Carolyn is checking on the children. She guided them to the restroom and kept them well away from the bloodshed. Áinel watched her quietly and walked over to reassure her. "How are you holding up?"
"Still in shock. And I've never seen Eric that angry."
"A child was killed," Áinel said as though that answered everything. Perhaps it did.
Raniel finished with the fueling, and topped off the extra tanks. He gave Jamie a reassuring pat on the shoulder and went to Ahrionel. "Ah, we have a minor problem. They're going the same direction we need to."
"We can't afford to wait, we're going to have to step up the pace again," Ahrie answered. "We'll just have to deal with those bastards when we meet them."
Ahrionel's simple declaration went through the angels like an electric charge. They felt their pulses begin to quicken in anticipation of a fight.
"Are the children ready to get moving again?" Ahrie asked Eric. The senior Cherub wasn't eager to find this fight, but he knew it had to be.
“They’re ready. I’ll try to encourage them to sleep again. I guess in terms of War, we’re deep in enemy territory right now, correct?”
"We're on the edge of enemy territory, problem is the only way we can go to avoid it is back, and we can't afford to try to find a way around." Ahrie sighed. "I know you've worked with Áine before, but remember... once War commits to a fight, we can't back out. Rani and Áine may listen to you if you try to order them back, if it comes to that. I know your commitment is to the children, we understand that."
“Don’t mistake that as an unwillingness to fight though. I know what is at stake here. And besides,” Eric added with a bitter expression, “I won’t suffer Dissonance if they come to harm since my Oaths are no longer binding. I just prefer that they don’t.”
"I could be wrong, but I think it will be better for both of us in the long run if we continue to obey our Oaths as if they still bound us," Lanus commented as he passed the two, heading for the van with young Mike riding on his shoulders. The boy laughed in delight as he enjoyed the high view. The sound seemed almost alien after what they had all just witnessed.
Eric put an arm around Carolyn. The woman leaned against him for comfort. “What about the bodies?” she asked.
The Malakite sighed. “We have to leave them where they are. We can’t bury or burn them.”
Lisa's delighted giggles broke the mood, Áinel had scooped her up and was dangling her upside-down, miming sweeping the ground with the child's hair.
Jill watched for a moment, and then looked up at Rani. "Is she always like this?"
"Not really. It's good for her though," he answered through a spreading grin.
Jill took in Raniel's statement with the solemn manner kids have when adults are taking them seriously. The Ofanite took advantage of that to sweep her up and around for a moment then guided her into the van.
Eric escorted Carolyn back and they listened to the sounds of the children. The human woman's haunted expression had lifted as she watched them play with the angels.
Within a few minutes, they
were on the road again. Raniel still kept quiet, letting Lanus concentrate
on what lay ahead. Eric remained silent as his charges fell asleep
in the back of the van. He stared outside at the dark clouds that blocked
out the slightest traces of the moon and stars.
The van stayed mostly quiet, occasionally punctuated by Rani and Lanus' whistles. Áinel was leaning against Ahrie, contorting herself so as not to disturb Lisa.
Eric adjusted himself a bit to lean a bit closer to Áinel. Carolyn had fallen asleep against him and he was reluctant to disturb her. The Seraph glanced at him in curiosity.
"What are those whistles that they are using? Some kind of communication?"
She blinked. "Hmmm? Oh, that. It is a condensed dialect of Celestial. If you listen carefully, you can probably understand some of it. They, my brothers, have been doing that so long that they have their own personal idioms."
“So that’s why I heard them speaking in acronyms.”
Áinel grinned in spite of things. “I’ve been around them for so long I can filter that out to understand what they are saying.”
Carolyn moved a little closer to Eric and he checked to make sure that she was still asleep. “Can I ask you something, Áinel?” As she nodded, he quickly continued. “Ahrie mentioned that you were a human a long time ago. How did you come to be a Seraph?”
Áinel considered how to word her response. "I was recruited as a Soldier centuries ago. After I died, I was restless as a soul in the Groves. I felt the call to continue to serve, and was transformed into a Reliever. I had started to show a talent, an early leaning if you will, for Truth after that. I won Michael's favor in a battle, but was nearly destroyed. He rewarded me by merging me with the shell of a dead Seraph, one who had been my mentor and had fallen in that battle. "This," she nodded at her body, "is a close recreation of my human self. Even after these many years, it feels more comfortable than my true shape."
As Áinel finished, she glanced over at him. "And what of yourself? What is your story?"
Eric shrugged. "Not as noteworthy as yours. I served a Seraph of Christopher's for about a decade on Earth. I posed as an imaginary friend and played with children that were friendless and got them to play with others. Then I saw one of the boys that I played with being beaten by his father. I killed the man and kept the child safe until my Seraph ripped me away."
Áinel’s eyes widened at this admission and Lanus looked over at him in interest. "You killed a human when you were a Reliever?" He asked.
"Yes. Celiel, the Seraph I served, called Christopher down to punish me. I faced him as bravely as I could and told him what I had done and why. He made me a Virtue and took me back to Heaven for training."
"Interesting," Áinel said. "Sounds like something Michael would do."
The angels sensed the sun begin to rise through the haze of the dust in the sky. Lanus looked up in alarm. "Raniel, pull over."
"NOW!" Lanus barked. The Ofanite pulled over and looked in the direction Lanus was staring. A cloud of dust was spiraling towards the van. It swirled angrily and roared towards them.
The children and Carolyn woke up at the Malakite's yell. They stared in horrified fascination at the cloud that had touched down. Carolyn leaned close to Eric.
"It's the fallout from the nukes and comet, isn't it?"
Eric nodded. "Brace yourself. It's going to get rough in a moment."
The two of them checked to make sure that the children were secured. Lisa whimpered in fear and squeezed Áinel’s hand tightly. Áinel pulled the girl close and sang soothingly to her. The cloud roared as it got closer. They could hear the rattle of sand and dust against the windshield. Everyone tensed as their vision was blocked from the cloud. The shriek grew deafening as everyone waited for it to hit.
And then the cloud drew back. As everyone watched, the dust cloud spiraled up into the sky. And within seconds it was gone. The sky was clearer but was beginning to lighten with the advancing sunlight. The angels looked at each other in wonder at what had just happened. True to form, Raniel was the first to break the silence.
"Looks like Janus touched down." The Wheel grinned maniacally as he watched the cloud spiral away.
"Rani?" Lanus asked.
"Shut up and keep driving."
"That was certainly unexpected," Ahrionel commented at last. He looked around the van and made sure everyone was all right.
Carolyn shuddered as she watched the last bit of cloud fade away. "That happened because of one of your people?" she wondered.
"It was the act of a powerful Celestial," Ahrionel agreed, "Probably a Superior. An Archangel," he clarified at the confused look on Carolyn's face. "Whether it was ally or foe, I can't tell."
Raniel looked back at Áinel. "Janus. Definitely. Can't think of anyone else that would be able to pull this off."
"True," the Seraph agreed. "The question is who prompted him to do it."
“We’ll worry about that later,” Lanus answered. “I think we should stop in at the next town and try to fill up on our water.”
Raniel glanced down the road and frowned. "Looks like a town is coming up actually. I could have sworn that I saw some streetlights as well."
Somehow, Lanus managed to grunt out a rather vile oath in Celestial without being blasphemous. The humans were surprised at the dark tone his whistles took, even if they couldn't understand the meaning.
"It's not safe there," he finally clarified.
"But we need to go through here," Rani protested.
Ahrionel frowned. "Raniel’s right. We are very close to the one I'm following... as if he suddenly stopped there."
"I have a bad feeling about this," Áinel muttered.
The van moved cautiously towards town. Every angel kept their eyes open for any sign of hostility. As they drew closer, Raniel felt confusion. Why would they hang scarecrows off of telephone poles? Was there some kind of celebration that was interrupted when Armageddon hit? Within a few yards of the first few telephone poles, he had his answer.
"Dear God." Carolyn whispered in horror.
The scarecrows were human bodies that had been hung from halfway up. The corpses were still fresh and had been left alone by the scavengers. Each one had been stripped to the waist and as they passed underneath, they saw that wooden signs had been hung over them.
The signs indicated the crimes that put the bodies there: Drug dealer, rapist, murderer, thief. The last eight that they saw were separated from all of the rest. Four men and four women, each one crucified instead of hung and the sign on them was the same.
Jamie's expression turned grim as they passed the bodies and Eric shuddered. Áinel pulled Lisa close, hiding the girl's face in her shoulder. "It would seem that the misguided ones are here," she commented dryly.
"My target is here somewhere," Ahrionel said slowly. "He is in danger."
Lanus' response to Áinel was as simple and direct as his nature. “That clinches it then," Lanus said. "We'd better figure out how we want to go about this, I don't know that we want to bring the children to battle with us."
The van pulled into town a
half hour later. In comparison to the horrors that the angels and humans
had witnessed outside, the town looked almost mundane. The streets
were empty save for a few people that watched the van warily. Eric
reached under his jacket and felt for the comforting weight of his pistol.
Áinel moved her sword out of her coat and kept her eyes on the sidewalks.
Lanus and Raniel chirped out a few more whistles at each other then fell
Raniel pulled into the first shopping center that he found. He stepped in front of everyone and began to speak.
"OK, someone that we are looking for is in this town. We have to help him but as you probably figured out, we're outnumbered and outgunned."
Ahrionel smiled at Eric. "Yes, it means we're in enemy territory."
"I kind of figured." the Malakite replied. "Rani, any ideas on how we're going to get your friend out of here?"
The Ofanite stared at Eric in puzzlement. "With a great deal of force and, if we're lucky, a chance to pulverize the angels that have been hounding us."
"Someone's coming," Áinel warned, spotting two figures approaching the van. "Lanus?"
He squinted. “They are not a threat to us.”
A man and woman approached, keeping their hands visible. "We don't like to be inhospitable, strangers, but you don't want to stop here," they warned. Their eyes had a haunted look, not surprising given the bodies outside the town. Eric and Lanus studied the two for a moment, reading them. The Malakim could tell that both humans have been trying to prevent something, but have failed, and that failure is tearing into their souls.
Lanus faced the couple quietly. “Don’t worry. We’re not here to cause any problems.”
The woman looked nervous. “We’re not worried about that. Things have just become dangerous here. Especially for newcomers.”
“And yet you stayed.” Lanus replied.
“Where else would we go?” The man replied. “We won’t give up that easily. But my wife is right. Things are very dangerous here. I’m sure you saw the people that were left outside of town.”
Ahrionel approached the man slowly to prevent him from becoming alarmed. “Yes we did. Who did that?”
The woman shuddered. “Please. Don’t stay around to find out. Just leave while you can.”
Ahrionel smiled peacefully at them. “We’re just looking for someone who’s here. We will leave when we find him.”
The sound of approaching footsteps caused them all to turn around. The couple went pale and looked at each other fearfully. But they stayed rooted to the spot and faced the group that was moving towards them.
They were all dressed in white robes and they moved with a sense of purpose. There were eight men and they took positions that ringed in everyone. Lanus felt the thrum in the Symphony that warned him that these people were a threat.
Áinel’s whistle reached the ears of the angels of War. “Look at the foreheads.”
All eight of them shared a mark on their foreheads that ran down in a bloody shade. Where the marks that they had seen before was three numbers, this one was a symbol in angelic script that spelled out Servant of God. It was the mark of those who were chosen to carry on the fight against the forces of Hell that remained after the Last Battle. Each of them ignored the angels and focused on the couple alone.
The sight of that mark was enough for Eric. He edged back towards the van and gestured for Carolyn to lock the doors. She moved quickly to follow his instructions and the Virtue stayed close to the vehicle.
One of the men moved apart from the group. He looked to be in his early forties with a muscular build and a beard that was slowly graying. His robes had been stained with dried blood and he carried a well-worn Bible in his hand. The smile he gave the couple was almost predatory. “Jesse, we missed you last night. I hope we can continue our conversation.”
The man spat on the ground. “I have nothing to say to you Howard. And my only regret was not saving that poor man before you killed him.”
Howard smiled benevolently at Jesse’s defiance. “My friend, I know you think you were doing the right thing. But the truth is that those people had sinned against the One God. As a minister, you should understand that.”
“Don’t tell me how to serve God, Howard! I was doing that long before those bastards touched you. And I remember how you were before that.”
Howard shrugged in answer. “I was forgiven by the angels that dwell here, Jesse. One of God’s servants himself cleansed me.” He moved forward with his arms spread wide. “Why do you and Margaret fight this so much?”
Margaret answered this time. Her eyes flashed with rage and she snarled at Howard. “Because you murdered innocent people. So what if they had the sign of The Beast? God can forgive the penitent. Your masters have forgotten that part in their zeal.”
Howard’s expression never changed even in the face of such provocation. He moved closer to them and was about to speak, but Lanus put himself in between them. He towered over the man and folded his arms.
“Go away, Howard. These people have done nothing to you. And if your people threaten them, I will do something to you.”
The man smiled benevolently up at Lanus. “Be at peace, my friend. I welcome you to our town. This is a matter between myself and Jesse.”
“I don’t care.” Lanus locked eyes with him. “I just told you to go away.”
Howard sputtered in outrage. “How dare you? We are servants of God.” He pushed at Lanus. “Now be on your way-“
Lanus grabbed Howard by the neck and threw the man effortlessly against the wall of a store. Raniel leaped towards the other men as they readied themselves to attack. The Ofanite threw his head back and howled. The men scattered in terror at the unearthly sound that came from the Wheel.
Howard stood up shakily and stared balefully at the angels. Before he could rise completely, Áinel was there. Her blade was out and the edge of her sword was against his throat.
“If you move, I will take your head. Please take me seriously.”
Howard’s answer was to raise his hands and sit down slowly. He looked fearfully at the group of people that now ringed him in. Ahrionel knelt down in front of the man.
“I am looking for a friend of mine. I know that he’s in this town. You have the unique opportunity to tell me where he is now.”
The man locked eyes with him and stuck his chin out. “I will not say anything to you demon!” He shouted.
It was the wrong thing to say. Ahrionel’s face lost all expression and he moved in closer. Áinel, Lanus and Raniel stared at each other nervously. Ahrionel only looked like that when he was feeling very murderous. Howard seemed to recognize the threat and he fell silent. The Cherub grabbed the man’s jaw and lifted his head until they were staring at each other.
“I’m not a demon. Now I am only going to tell you this once because I genuinely hate repeating myself. I am looking for a friend. He’s about six feet tall, grey haired with a beard and his shoulders are a bit stooped as if he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He answers to the name of Darren.” Ahrionel grabbed Howard’s neck and made him stand up. “I want you to tell me where they are holding him right now.”
The man hesitated then simply said, "no."
Ahrionel sighed. "Do not make me take it from you."
The man stared balefully, but remained silent. With another sigh, Ahrie tightened his grip on the man's throat, watched his eyes widen in surprise. He let the body slide to the ground a moment later. "He'll live," Ahrionel said to Lanus.
“Getting soft?” The Malakite replied.
Áinel cornered the woman, who was trying to edge away. "If you know something, tell us now."
"I..." she looked to her husband for support.
"We may as well help them, it seems they're the only chance we have to be rid of these zealots." Jesse pointed down a side street. "There's a building near the center of town, used to be the courthouse. They hold people there for what they call questioning, but it’s just a polite way of saying torture. I think I saw them dragging in someone that sounds like what he described, but I didn't get a good look."
"Thank you," Áinel said, accepting their words.
"Ahrie, incoming," Lanus warned as another group swung into view.
This group was five in number and they moved with a grace and power that warned the angels that these were not human opponents. Eric moved away from the van and took up a defensive position near Raniel.
The newcomers stopped twenty feet away from them and regarded them sternly. A woman in the group swept her gaze across them. “I am Kishi, Seraph of Uriel. I do not appreciate my Soldiers being treated this way by the Host.”
Before Lanus could answer, Ahrionel had pushed him aside. “We are searching for an angel that we know is in this town. His name-“
“Ah yes, Dathan. He is under our care and not your concern.”
Ahrionel’s voice hardened as he advanced towards Kishi. “I am Ahrionel, the Angel of Recruiting. You will turn him over to my custody.”
Raniel, Eric, Áinel and Lanus took their positions as the angels of Purity muttered threateningly. Eric locked eyes with one angel that was drawing a sword that had been at his side. What the Symphony told him about this one caused his blood to boil.
“Raniel,” he whispered. When the Ofanite raised his eyebrows to acknowledge him, Eric continued. “The blonde one on the left. He’s mine. Tell the others not to interfere.”
Rani nodded, and whistled quietly. Although the Celestial sounded like nonsense to Eric, the other War angels shifted their attentions away from Eric’s prey.
“O ho, quite a catch,” Kishi said through a chilling smile.
“You’ve not caught me yet,” Ahrionel answered. “Anyway, you are outnumbered.”
“The numbers seem even to me,” Kishi snorted.
“Then your blindness is deeper than we thought.”
That was enough for Kishi. “Get them,” she ordered her companions.
The shot rang out an instant later, mixed with the sound of breaking glass. Jamie’s shot hit another female angel who yelped in pain.
Eric was oblivious to all of it. The Malakite launched himself at the angel that had gained his attention. The blow sent them both away from the group and knocked the blonde angel’s sword free. He stared at Eric in confusion as they circled each other.
“Do I know you?" he gasped as he clutched the side Eric had hit. "This seems to be personal.”
Eric answered with his fist against the angel’s jaw. His head snapped back and he got into a fighting stance.
“I saw what you and your friends did at that gas station.”
“The whole family was marked. What do you-”?
“I served Christopher.” Eric snarled. Without wasting any more time, he tackled the angel and focused his attention on the fight. The two were oblivious to the rest of the fight around them.
The War angels had each chosen their targets and were going at it one on one. Ahrie and Kishi were slugging it out; both had dropped their guns in favor of fists and knives. It might have been a reasonably fair fight, but the Purity angels were not counting on another factor. Jesse and his wife had crept in to snatch the dropped guns. The preacher’s hands shook as he tried to choose a target.
Kishi’s punch sent Ahrionel sprawling on his rump. She closed in to finish him off when another shot rang out. Her chest spurted blood, a painful irritation, and she rounded on Jesse’s wife, whose gun was trailing smoke. Ahrionel brought her down while she was distracted, and neatly slit her throat. The human woman blinked, looked surprised at what she had done, and backed away.
Across the street, Eric and Jasher were tearing at each other. Eric fought the angel with a ferocity that the Purity angel had rarely encountered. Both were bleeding profusely yet neither one had given up.
“A good fight but rather pointless, Virtue.” Jasher wiped sweat away from his head and did his best to keep Eric at bay. “How could one of the pure like yourself choose this?”
“We’re more than just pure, Cherub.” Eric answered. The Malakite was limping but he refused to let that stop him. “We’re honor as well. As for how-“ Eric ripped a mirror off of a nearby car and smashed it against Jasher’s face. The moment of distraction gave Eric the perfect chance. He closed in on the Cherub and finally managed to grab his gun. He shot four times into the angel’s head, the sound echoing in the streets.
Eric stood up and dusted himself off. In spite of being mortally wounded, Jasher still tried to crawl towards him. He looked up at the Malakite.
“This won’t stop all of us,” he whispered. “We will simply come back and find you. And if we fall, others will take our place.”
Eric stepped back to prevent the Cherub from touching him. He wasn’t about to risk Jasher bonding to him. “We’re going to fight you anyway, Jasher. As many times as we need to.”
The Cherub’s eyes stared sightlessly at the morning sky and he collapsed. Once Eric was sure that the Cherub wasn’t getting up again, he turned to look at the rest of the battle.
Carolyn was quickly at his side, with an arm out to support him. “Eric, how badly are you hurt?”
His response was interrupted by Ahrionel’s howl. The normally gentle Cherub had gone from emotionless to full of rage, and took off running towards the center of the town.
Lanus swore, and shouldered his way into the midst of Áinel and her opponent. “Go with him,” Lanus grunted. Áinel hesitated. “That’s an order. Go!”
She slid away and raced after Ahrie, leaving Lanus with two opponents. His smile spread. “Let’s dance,” he said.
Eric began to hobble towards Lanus to help but Carolyn stopped him. “No! You’re bleeding even worse than when you were in the center. Head back to the van.” The Malakite allowed her to drag him back and stared at the battle that was breaking out in front of him.
The two angels facing Lanus moved into position. It really didn’t help them much. Lanus was tired of playing around, and had one of them finished off before the pair knew what had happened. The other took him a bit longer, perhaps ten seconds, before his head went rolling.
Lanus turned to help Raniel, but the Ofanite had thrown his opponent into the high branches of a tree, neatly skewering her. With a silent nod, Lanus jogged off after his other two companions.
The two new humans crept over to the van to help Carolyn tend to Eric’s wounds. “What… what is really going on here?” the wife asked.
Raniel explained. He had to pause to take a breath but he managed to tell them what was going on. The two humans looked at the ragtag group in some disbelief. Jesse was the first to speak. “So they really are angels.”
“Is that so hard to grasp?” Raniel replied.
“When you’ve lived for so long without any proof to show for your faith, being confirmed abruptly is more than a little shocking.” The sentence was punctuated with a grunt as Jesse finished bandaging the worst of Eric’s wounds.
There was a moment of silence as Raniel regarded Eric. Then without warning the two angels began to laugh. The tensions of the past few days suddenly seemed a lot lighter.
Eric clapped a hand fondly on the man’s shoulder. “We hadn’t thought of that.”
Margaret relaxed a bit at the angels. She smiled pleasantly as the children climbed out of the vehicle, but she looked at Eric and Raniel in total confusion. “So what are you going to do now? Where are you going to go if you find your friend?”
Raniel played with Mike as the boy came running up to him. “Not entirely sure yet. We have a general idea on direction, but that’s about it.”
"But... away from here?" Jesse asked. Rani nodded. "Do you think... could we come with you?"
Raniel and Eric looked at each other silently for a moment. Eric decided to answer them. “We won’t force you one way or the other. But if you come, you had best understand a few things. We are fighting for our lives right now. We have no idea where we are going or when we will get there. And you must be willing to fight and possibly give up your lives. We’re offering nothing in return other than sanctuary with our friends when we find them and a chance to fight back against the angels like the ones who took over your town.”
Jesse offered a hand to Eric. "It's a better offer than what we are facing here."
Down the street, Áinel
was running as fast as she could. She could hear Ahrionel’s howl
and saw terrified humans that were just beginning to wake up and step outside.
The courthouse was not far from where they had been. Áinel heard the shriek in the Symphony that was caused from a Celestial killing humans. From the sounds of things, Ahrie had already dispatched several people. The doors to the courtroom were smashed open and the Seraph could see bodies of men that tried to stop the Cherub’s advance.
She caught up to him as he found his attuned. The sight nearly made her vomit on the spot. The angel had been strapped to a metal table and sliced open. The table and floor were slick with his blood, exposed organs glistened in the harsh light.
Áinel had to deal with another pair of humans who tried to attack Ahrie, now completely focused on his target. She knocked them out and bound them before they woke. Dathan tried to speak, telling Ahrie something Áinel could not hear. Ahrie wasn't taking it well, that much she could read.
The Symphony sung out as something major happened, but a pure and triumphant song. A faint glow surrounded Ahrie for a moment then faded. Lanus entered behind them as Ahrie slumped to the floor, Áinel catching him before he hit his head.
A quick glance told him that Dathan was dead. Áinel's eyes pleaded with him silently, and he scooped Ahrie up to carry him back out.
No one challenged them as they left. The few people that were out took notice of the destruction and concluded that they were the cause of it. Lanus and Áinel ignored them all as they headed back to the van.
Jamie's warning heralded the other angels' return. At first it looked as though there were only two coming back, then the shadows resolved to show that Lanus was carrying an unconscious Ahrie. Áinel looked deathly pale, with a touch of green around the edges. All were covered in blood. Behind them, smoke started to rise from the courthouse.
“AHRIE!” Raniel shrieked. He sprinted towards them with the speed that the Ofanim were blessed with. He looked frantically at Lanus and began to speak faster than anyone could track.
"Rani..." Áinel laid a hand on the frantic Ofanite's arm. "He will be alright, but he must rest... and we must get out of here."
"Whatdidthosebastardsdotohim!" Rani wailed.
"I don't know. I don't even know who did this. Rani, please, we have to get out of here before more come."
"We'll need a bigger vehicle then," Jesse said. Áinel and Lanus looked at him, then Eric, questioningly.
Eric stared at both of the angels. “Jesse and Margaret have lost their homes and their faces are known to the Soldiers and Angels of Purity. We can’t just leave them here. They know what they are risking already. Besides, we can always use more fighters, right?”
Lanus grunted and gently set Ahrionel down on the sidewalk. “You so sure of their skill in fighting?”
“They didn’t run when the fighting started,” Eric replied. The look he gave both Áinel indicated that this should be answer enough.
Lanus sighed and nodded. "Alright. Vehicle?"
"There's a bus depot, we might be able to find something there," Jesse offered. Raniel's eyes lit up like a happy child.
Lanus stifled a groan. "Go. Hurry."
Jesse and Raniel walked briskly down the street. The Ofanite’s spirits seemed to rise at the notion of driving something bigger. Eric grinned over at Lanus and offered to help with Ahrionel.
“Well, the van is probably familiar to Uriel’s people by now. Especially with the two that we flattened with it.”
“There is a matter of trying to be somewhat inconspicuous.” Lanus grumbled.
“Speaking of inconspiuous,” Eric said quietly, looking back towards the center of town, “That seems an awful lot of smoke.”
Lanus frowned, and fixed his stern eyes on Áinel. “What did you do?”
She met his gaze, equally cold. “Ensured that their base would be destroyed.”
Eric winced as he heard the scream in the Symphony from the human’s deaths in that building. Áinel stopped him just as his mouth opened.
“We are at war, Eric. There are times when death is unavoidable.”
“I know, Áinel. It’s going to take a bit of time for me to adjust. I’m glad that you decided to let Jesse and Margaret with us at least.”
"We cannot abandon possible allies," Áinel replied. She had already stripped Ahrie of his shirt, not that there was much left of it, and was working on leaning him up. Most of the blood didn't seem to be his, however he was cut and bruised underneath. He grunted once when she cleaned a sensitive bruise, but stayed asleep.
Eric looked over in concern. “So what did happen to him?”
Áinel looked over her shoulder. "He found Dathan. They..." she shudders, obviously badly shaken. "They vivisected him. Dathan did... something, just before he died. I don't know what, but there was a large energy transfer. But if Ahrie was still attuned when Dathan died..." she trails off, lost in her own concern for him.
Lanus moved next to Eric. The two Malakim managed to bind the rest of the Cherub’s wounds and get him stabilized. “I think he found the person that did that to Dathan and killed them. He might still be feeling the shock of losing his Attuned and the Dissonance that followed it briefly though.”
Áinel felt a small hand slip into hers. Lisa was looking up at her with wide eyes. “Is Uncle Ahrie going to be ok?”
Áinel squeezed the girl's hand. "Yes he will. He is far too stubborn to give up now. We have to get away from here as soon as we can, though."
A quiet rumble set the angels on edge again, however the sight of a grinning Raniel behind the wheel of a coach bus let Áinel and Eric relax. Lanus... didn't.
“I may have to harm him yet,” he grumbled. Eric followed his gaze to the sign that showed the bus’ destination as being ‘Eden.’
"Readytogowhenyouare," the Ofanite said with a smile, hopping out to help load the gear and passengers.
Jamie stepped over and opened the back doors. “What about the van?”
“We have to leave it here,” Eric replied, “At least we’ll have some more room to stretch out in.”
Lanus grunted as he maneuvered Ahrionel into the bus, settling him in a reclined seat. “Has our tail made another appearance yet?” he asked as he passed.
Three puzzled looks followed him as he lifted a large armload of toys. “What, none of you noticed?” he asked.
Áinel glared at him. “Lanus…”
“We’ve had a Kyriotate following us at least since the first rest stop outside the city. Whoever it is, it isn’t hostile. May have even helped out in that last fight.”
Eric looked over his shoulder in a vain attempt to see what Lanus was talking about. The older Virtue chuckled at him as Jesse took the seat across from Eric.
“They are a Choir of angel. They cannot take bodies on Earth so they possess the bodies of others. You might become a host at some point. Don’t worry; they don’t let their hosts come to harm.”
Jesse looked skeptical but sat back and relaxed.
The bus started with a powerful lurch and began to move down the road. Lanus got up from his seat long enough to cuff Raniel. The Ofanite wailed in protest at how he was still learning how to drive a bus.
Eric smiled and settled in for the ride. He looked over at Ainel as she tended to Ahrionel’s wounds.
“Mind if I ask you something?”
The Seraph nodded without looking over at him.
“Do you think Michael is going to pair me up with an Ofanite as well?”
Áinel smiled in answer. “Given your personality, you might be the prankster in your group. You might be teamed up with an Elohite instead.”
“Do we even know where we’re going now?” Lanus asked quietly at the front.
“South, and east. We’ve a long road ahead though,” came the soft response. Ahrie was struggling to sit up and his eyes were half focused.
“Please, not so fast,” Áinel gently kept him in his seat. “Can you tell us what happened?” The other angels gathered around, Rani tried to listen as well as he could while still driving.
“I don’t know how he did it, but Dathan shook off all of the attuned hooks, from all of us following him.”
“Shook off?” Lanus raised an eyebrow.
“Shuffled them off. Onto me. Everyone who was following him, is now following us. And he gave me this.” A shard of crystal pulled out of his palm, seemingly under its own power, and pulsed for a moment before burrowing back in.
“A piece of Michael’s Heart. It pulls me to him.”
Carolyn moved next to Áinel and helped with the Cherub’s wounds. “So we’re even more of a target then.”
“Yes, and it also falls on me to guide others true… their beacon, alone in the night.”
Áinel squeezed his hand. “Not alone. You know we would never leave you.”
Ahrie feebly returned the squeeze. He knew, from Dathan’s memories and parting words that the time might come when he would have to send the others on without him. Whether they liked it or not.