The armies of Michael and Gabriel had found one of
the best positions to gather their forces. The safest approach for
ground troops was along one road that was located in a valley. The
sides and end of the road had several fighting positions dug in and the
soldiers inside would kill anything hostile that wandered towards them
without hesitation. Several batteries of artillery and anti-aircraft
weaponry ringed the outside perimeter. Within the encampment itself,
angels, saints and soldiers were openly armed and able to coordinate a
defense with little more than a few syllables of command.
In short, it was a very dangerous place for someone from the outside to attack.
However, that did not mean conflict from within was covered.
“I do not want to hear it. This is necessary.”
The argument had been going on from one of the larger tents in the encampment. The two Cherubim standing guard outside were doing their best to pretend that they heard nothing going on behind the closed tent flap. Outside the tent, other angels had a betting pool running on the outcome of the debate.
Inside the tent, Michelle and Doxas squared off. Very few angels, even Word-Bound, had what it took to argue with an Archangel. Moreover, when the Archangel in question was War, and the Word-Bound in War’s service, things got even more interesting. Neither was willing to back down.
Doxas gestured in irritation. “It’s more important to take care of the more seriously injured. I can wait, and I can keep your servants in line while you’re away.”
“You are my highest ranking angel and my highest ranked Word-Bound in this camp, Doxas. I have others to handle those duties. You have a duty as my second in command, and you are going to be hampered if you aren’t complete.”
“Archangel,” Doxas protested. “I’m not trying to shirk my duties. As I said, the more seriously injured need to helped first. Not to mention the problems that the Malakim have with no Heart and no Oaths to bind them.”
“I could order you to go,” Michelle growled. “If I say you need a new Heart, then it will be done.”
Doxas shrugged dismissively. “Yes, you could and I could still disobey that order. Technically I’m still an Outcast so I don’t have to listen to you.”
Mercurian and Seraph continued to glare at each other. Outside, the stakes rose a little higher after the gathered angels heard the Angel of Glory’s last sentence.
Michelle sighed. “You are needed here and we both know it. However, it would be better if you had your Heart. We have time right now to forge a new one for you and let you get back to work. When the rest of our forces start to arrive here, it is going to be very busy.”
Doxas nodded. “Alright. Let’s get it over with then, I have work to do.”
The Archangel of War shook her head in exasperation. “Anyone else who gave me this much trouble...”
Doxas grinned at her Archangel. “You need that part of me as much as the rest.”
“Yes I do. More than ever in light of what we are facing.”
Outside the tent, the angels paid off their bets and dispersed before either Doxas or Michael could step out.
Doxas headed down the quickest path towards the Heart Forges. A tall muscular black man fell into step beside her. He kept his eyes forward and quietly waited for Doxas to acknowledge him.
The Mercurian smiled wryly at the man a few steps later. “So, Jeremy. How much did you make off that little conflict?”
“A roomier tent and I got two angels on kitchen duty for a week. It’s a shame that money doesn’t mean that much right now; I could have made quite a bit.”
The Angel of Glory chuckled at her adjutant’s behavior. “Not that you took advantage of your position with me and used that to help your betting.”
“My lady, if the other angels and blessed souls don’t know who I am and bet against me, is that truly my fault? Perhaps they will learn to get more information before gambling.” Jeremy grinned broadly as they worked their way clear of the tents.
The sun had finally broken through the cloud cover and lifted the moods of both angel and human. Doxas glanced over at Jeremy and read his facial features.
“So what aren’t you saying right now, Jeremy?”
Jeremy was not the least bit surprised that the Angel of Glory could sense his mood. He had worked with her long enough to know that he could keep little from her.
“I think you dragged that argument out with Archangel Michael for far too long. You need to have a new Heart and prolonging the moment was pointless.”
Most people would be shocked at the human’s lack of diplomacy towards an angel. However, Jeremy had advanced as far as he had for being as blunt towards angels as any Seraph. Rather than chastise him, Doxas looked thoughtful.
“Pointless how? You’ve seen how many injured and dying we have, Jeremy.”
“Would you be happier joining them? Your concern for troop welfare is admirable, my lady. When I was a Marine, it was our second most important consideration. Accomplishing the mission is the only thing that is more important. How will you accomplish the mission at hand if you go into this crippled and Heartless?”
“If I let people die or go to Limbo just because I am thinking of my own needs, what would that accomplish?”
“If we die, we die,” the Soldier replied with a shrug. “We knew from the moment we were made aware of The War that we were putting ourselves in harm’s way. You are needed right now. As Michael said, you are his highest-ranking angel in this encampment. That means you have a shit load of responsibility and you need to be fully functional to handle it.”
Doxas’ mouth opened then snapped shut. Jeremy remained silent and let the Angel of Glory think things over.
“You’re right. And this once, I really hate admitting it.”
“No one is going to think less of you over this, Doxas. They need you too much.”
The two arrived at the Heart Forge. Several angels milled around the area and placed Hearts inside safe areas. The Mercurian made her way up to the Angel of Dreams of Determination. The Cherub bowed to her as she stopped in front of him.
“Hello, Angel of Glory. I was wondering when you would get here.”
The Mercurian looked around the Forge and one last time at Jeremy. She sat down on the grass and smiled at Shimuera.
“Let’s begin. What do you need me to do?”
On the edge of Novalis’ garden was a brightly colored
playhouse. The souls of children and angels played in and around
the house constantly. The laughter was some of the most joyful sounds
heard within Heaven lately.
The playhouse was the Cathedral of Christopher, the Archangel of Children. This was one spot of peace in the middle of the turmoil on Heaven and Earth.
There was a back room in the Cathedral known only to Christopher himself. He had brought two Archangels in here. They had been in a meeting for less than an hour and the tension had begun to build up.
“We can’t just sit idly by much longer,” Janus grumbled as he circled the room. His Ofanite nature was making him restless as the need for action burned in his body.
Christopher shrugged. “So what can we do? You said you had tried to get it open, and even you couldn’t.”
“Repeatedly. It just won’t budge without the blessed key.”
“Which of course you’ve tried to acquire,” Novalis added.
“Of course. However, I do not think Uriel has it. Not the way he was asking Dominic...”
“We can’t go to him with this though. Not this time.”
“We can’t just let Eli stew in there. Not with Sariel after his head,” Novalis said, concern edging into her voice.
The three Archangels considered silently. “I suppose you could try to find the key in Dominic’s place...” Christopher started.
“Risky. And you know what that means coming from me.” Janus continued to pace, quickly. “If I had any idea where to start,” he sighed in frustration.
“His office, of course,” a voice rolled out of the shadows. The three turned quickly, saw the robed figure, cowl obscuring its face. The outlines of dark wings were visible. “Probably in the hollow book on the third shelf. Quite a shame he is off visiting his agents on Earth now, surely he would be furious to find it missing.”
“And of course, he doesn’t know you’re here telling us this, and he certainly didn’t tell you to do it,” Janus said through a grin, realizing what was going on.
“Of course.” The figure nodded once, then disappeared.
“Now?” Novalis asked.
“Do you really need to ask that, my dear?” Janus was gone in an instant.
Justinian purred and weaved between Bronwen’s
legs as she strode deeper into Dominic’s cathedral. The Malakite
knew the Council would be lively when they found out what was about to
happen. In spite of it all, she couldn’t help but smile.
“You two seem pleased with yourselves,” Nisroc commented, leaning against a wall. “Out causing mischief?”
Bronwen gave him a pleasant, level look. “It is best that you do not know about it. Deniability and all that.”
Nisroc winked at her. “Just as it is best that no-one knows I’m here at all. Dear lady, you know I would never admit that you’re helping the quiet rebels free Eli.”
Bronwen blinked at him. “How…”
He grinned. “I am the Angel of Spies, Bronwen. There is a reason I earned my Word. So did you do it under ‘Nic’s orders, or on your own?”
“Deniability, Nisroc. He did not tell me to do this.”
Nisroc nodded. “Of course. I almost wish I could be in the Chambers when they find out. Hope you plan to be armed.”
Bronwen let a slow smile creep onto her face. “But of course. We Servitors of Judgment have some of the best defenses in Heaven for things like this.”
The two angels entered an empty meeting room. Justinian hopped up on the table and began to demand attention from Nisroc. The cat had grown quite fond of Nisroc during the angel’s convalescence.
“So tell me, Bronwen; what do you plan on doing if this comes out in the open?” Nisroc reached into his robes and produced a bit of string that he began to dangle in front of Justinian. Dominic’s kitten began to jump and pounce on it in a lively dance.
“I think you were going to say ‘when’ this comes out in the open,” she replied. “You know better than any of us how difficult it can be to keep things in the dark in Heaven. And to answer your question, I have only the vaguest idea.” The Virtue looked quite uncomfortable at the turn of conversation. “The only thing I can do as a loyal Servitor of Judgment would be to surrender myself to the Seraphim Council and accept whatever judgment they decree should my role in this come out.”
Nisroc scooped up Justinian and began scratching him between the eyes. “I will keep my ears open in the meantime. Any bits of information I learn will be passed on to you.”
Bronwen arched an eyebrow at the Mercurian. “You would spy upon Heaven?”
“Without regret. Although I am bound to the Archangel of Judgment, I am still bound to my Word. And don’t give me that look either; we Michaelites know damn good and well that Dominic’s angels have no problem with intelligence gathering.”
Bronwen sighed dismally as the truth behind Nisroc’s words and the necessity of his plan sunk in. “It wasn’t a criticism, Nisroc. But things are not the same now in Heaven. I am used to black and white, good and evil-“
“Chocolate and vanilla, plaids and stripes,” Nisroc said abruptly. “Basically, you are having problems with the fact that not all the answers are that easy and ambiguity can exist even within your ranks, correct?”
Bronwen nodded and looked at the Angel of Spies as he grinned at her. “My dear Virtue, those are the kinds of gray areas that I deal with in my function as Heaven’s information gatherer. What you have to learn is how to keep doing the right thing when your actions may seem wrong.”
“I don’t understand.” Bronwen replied.
“You will. Don’t worry about it. You’re already on the right foot with what you did earlier.”
The mountains were dark and foreboding.
The devastation brought about by the hands of humans and the Final Battle
had plunged them into eternal winter. The few trees that were standing
were leafless and the breeze in the air howled a constant rhythm.
It was the closest thing to Hell on Earth. It was perfect for those who had sheltered here.
Baal, the Demon Prince of The War, was pacing irritably around the encampment. For countless millennia, he had dreamed of the chance to face the Archangel of War. For a few glorious minutes, Baal had fought him as a master facing one of equal skill. Against one who was truly a challenge. His sword and Michael’s axe crashed against each other in a song of lethal harmony. Both struggled to find the other’s weaknesses and both came close to killing the other more than once. Then without warning, Lucifer dragged him from the field as if he was a mere demonling.
In his mind, Baal understood the logic behind what had happened. He knew that fighting one battle when the rest of the forces of Hell died would accomplish nothing. However, it still rasped across the Balseraph’s nerves.
The demons, humans and Ethereal spirits in the encampment kept themselves as busy as possible. When the Prince of The War was in this mood, which was quite often, it was in one’s best interest to remain unseen.
Baal stopped and turned to face a woman that was walking towards him. Miranda had been in his service for forty years. She had first been a human Soldier of Hell then sold her soul willingly to become a mummy. Baal found her indispensable as a contact with humans when he needed a more subtle touch and he had a slight bit of satisfaction that she had survived the Battle. As for Miranda, the destruction of much of her competition had given her unprecedented power.
The Balseraph locked eyes with her. “What is it, Captain?”
Miranda bowed and spoke quickly. “I have just heard the reports from out in the field. Our troops are making there way here as best they can, but have encountered heavy opposition from the enemy.”
Baal nodded. “I expected as much. How high are the casualty rates?”
“Best estimates are seventy five to eighty percent. It seems that Archangel Uriel and Sariel have an unprecedented amount of power out there. With their Words on the ascension and help from the humans, it is becoming more and more difficult for them to move about.”
The Prince of The War spat on the ground. “Damn it! If they have taken the field, then why are they not at least finishing the job?”
Miranda waited for Baal’s emotional state to cool to where she felt safe to speak again. Powerful as she was, she knew that the Balseraph was still quite capable of killing her before she could sense him moving.
“There is a large group of our troops heading here. Our Shedite spies report that they will reach the outer border of our encampment in three days. They seem to be a combination of forces from the ranks of Asmodeus, Haagenti and Vapula. I have already ordered the slave masters to insure that enough of an area is cleared out for the new arrivals.”
“And what of the angels of War that we captured?”
“Uncooperative for the most part. All that we have learned is that Michael and Gabriel have gathered their forces and are preparing for an assault against Heaven. Four of the angels have already died from an escape attempt and two of the Malakim got loose and destroyed twenty of our people before being put down.”
“I expected as much. Carry on, Miranda. Advise the Master Sergeant that I expect to see the troops practicing out in the field. Let the remainder of the angels loose and make the training more realistic.”
The mummy bowed. “As my Lord General commands.”
As Miranda left to carry out her orders, Baal stared out towards the horizon. Remaining here had been Lucifer’s last order and he would carry it out. He only wished he knew what the Lightbringer had planned.
Far from the forces of Hell, a bus rumbled
along an abandoned stretch of freeway. The driver was a manic looking
blonde man who seemed to take great pleasure in guiding his bus along.
He split his time between watching the road and carrying on a conversation
with the woman sitting next to him.
“So we were surrounded by demons and Hell soldiers on all sides. I knew that things were gonna go bad for us if something wasn’t done. Now, we Ofanim are fast and have energy to burn. All I had to do was force everything to slow down, then release it suddenly.” The Ofanite grinned at the memory. “Next thing you know, Boom!” –he punched his palm with his fist, causing the bus to swerve a bit off to the side- “I take out twelve in one shot. Cost me my Vessel and I was stuck in Heaven for a few months.”
Samantha stared at the open road silently and refused to answer anything Raniel said. She had said nothing since joining the group two weeks ago but she had begun to keep close to the Wheel. As for Raniel, he enjoyed having someone new to share his stories with even if she was not responsive.
He had a feeling that he just had to find the right thing to get her to speak.
Towards the middle of the bus, Lanus looked up from his card game with Eric. He shook his head in annoyance as he listened to Raniel.
“Little bastard never gets tired of that story. Just because he took out so many at once.”
Eric stared at his cards for a moment and arranged his hand a bit. “So he’s telling the truth? He really did kill that many demons?”
“Once.” Lanus replied tersely. “And he’s never let me forget it.”
Eric gestured for the older Malakite to give him another card. “You seem to handle him well enough. How long has he traveled with you?”
Lanus glanced at his hand. “Since he fledged. I still find myself asking what I’ve done to deserve him.” He looked up at Eric. “I call.”
Eric set his cards down. “Pair of Jacks and pair of tens. You?”
“Four queens and a three. Dealer wins. One more round?”
Áinel, Ahrionel and Torael were carrying
on a conversation with Ushiel in the very back of the bus as the children
and most of the adults slept. The Kyriotate had taken possession
of Carolyn for now and was facing the other three angels quietly.
“We have reported our findings to Archangel Dominic last night. At this point, we have been told that we are being left alone in this matter.”
Ahrionel frowned. “He is not going to expect reports from you?”
“No. It seems as if many of the Servitors of Judgment have more autonomy in this matter.”
The Kyriotate had been observing them for the past several days in an effort to learn about the Outcast angels on Earth. Although the angels were uncomfortable in Ushiel’s presence, they slowly began to accept that it was as good as its word. As for Ushiel, the Kyriotate was acting with almost painstaking politeness towards them. The situation was still tense, but had become more bearable.
Torael tilted his head curiously at the last statement. “How can you expect to keep things like this a secret from Heaven? It would seem difficult to hide the knowledge that angels of Judgment are working openly with Outcasts.”
“That is a risk we accept. The Most Just does not see fit to tell us why this is happening, only that it is. In fact, we suggested to him that we approach you in peace.” He tactfully ignored Ahrionel’s derisive snort.
Lisa stirred in her sleep and snuggled up against Áinel. The Seraph absently stroked the girl’s hair as she listened to the Domination. “And what happens when Uriel and Sariel find out what he is doing?”
“We…do not know. Archangel Dominic may stand Trial and his angels shall be hunted as well.” Carolyn turned to face Ahrionel. “You find something amusing?”
The Cherub had indeed been clutching his sides in an effort not to laugh loud enough to wake everyone on the bus. Tears rolled down his eyes from restraining himself. After a moment, he managed to compose himself. “I was alive at the time of Michael’s trial as well as Gabriel’s. I have an appreciation for fine irony.”
Ushiel scowled. “We take no joy in this, Cherub. And we are risking much to be associated with you.”
Ahrionel looked thoughtful. “I think that’s quite a compliment.”
Before the Domination could say anything else,
Jill thrashed in her sleep. The terrified moan from the child drew
Eric away from his card game and to her side. He gently shook her
as she clutched her blanket.
“Jill? Jill, come on. Wake up.”
The girl’s eyes flew open and she stared straight ahead. When they focused on Eric, she clutched the Malakite tightly.
“It was just a bad dream,” he whispered.
Jill shook her head. “No it wasn’t. It was real. It was hurting me.”
Eric looked up at Lanus who had moved to his side. “Was it Beleth’s Servitors?”
The older Virtue shrugged. “I can’t say. We weren’t in the Marches when the battle was going on. I didn’t think that she was still around.”
Eric wiped her tears away as her sobs died down. “Jill, I know it seemed real. But what is out there in dreams can’t truly hurt you. It just seems scary, that’s all.”
The girl let out a deep, shuddering sigh as her grip on the blanket relaxed. She looked at Eric with red-rimmed eyes and curled up against him. “Read me a story?” she pleaded.
“Of course.” Eric gestured to Lanus and sent the Malakite towards the front to take something out of the bag of books. He settled the girl down and consoled her.
Lanus grabbed the first book he could find. He paused to affectionately pat Chomper as the dog dozed on the seat. The puppy stirred briefly but refused to wake up. With a quick smile, he headed back to Eric.
“This one appropriate?”
Eric nodded and opened to the first page. “Charlie Brown is always appropriate.”
While Eric read to Jill, Ahrie and Áinel listened to the conversation. They looked over at Ushiel who was frowning in concern.
“What is it?” Áinel asked.
“We did not realize you had not heard. Beleth was Redeemed, and is once more the Archangel of Fear. Perhaps that was what happened to the little one.”
The others were silent for a moment as this sunk in. “How has Blandine taken this?” Ahrie voiced at last.
“We do not know. We have heard that she has fled Heaven.”
Even Raniel fell quiet at this. Gazes drifted around as they considered the possible ramifications.
Torael was the first to break the silence. “Tell us what you know.”
Ushiel shrugged. “What information we have is from glancing at certain reports and hearsay. Blandine won against the forces of Nightmares and was ready to kill Beleth. Uriel interfered and allowed her to come back to Heaven.”
“I thought you wanted people to go to Heaven,” Samantha whispered to Raniel.
The Ofanite nearly lost control of the bus at the sound of her voice. This was the first time he had ever heard her say anything at all to them. Raniel knew that he had to play this carefully. Too enthusiastic or loud a response would probably send her back inside her shell. He kept his eyes forward and his voice evenly measured as he answered her.
“We do, Samantha. It’s just the way that they are getting people there is wrong to us. Does that make sense?”
“Sam,” she answered. Her voice was picking up slightly. “No one calls…called me Samantha other than my dad.” Tears began to fall silently down her cheeks. “And he’s not around anymore.”
A few whistles from the Ofanite sent Lanus up to the front to take over driving. Raniel took the seat next to her and offered her a box of tissues.
“Would you like to talk to me?” he asked. Sam nodded and took a tissue.
Eric smiled at what he saw up front.
He knew very little about the kind of trauma that caused humans to become
silent and withdrawn, but he was happy that Raniel managed to help her
through. Torael took the empty seat next to Eric.
“How is your wounded eye?”
Eric shrugged. “The pain is gone and I am seeing without any more blurring. Something bothering you?”
Torael was silent for a few seconds before answering. “Very high emotions between Ahrionel and Ushiel. I felt that distancing myself from them is the most logical course of action right now.”
“I don’t understand it very much myself.”
“Nothing more than the usual squabbles that happen between Michael and Dominic’s people.”
“As I remember, Gabrielites don’t have much fondness for Dominic either.”
Torael grinned. “You are as blunt as a human child. I find that refreshing. My distrust towards Judgment is still in place, but Ushiel’s company is necessary right now.”
Eric shuffled the cards and began to deal them out between him and Torael. “Christopher has no hostility towards anyone. We try to play nice with others.”
“Will you serve Christopher again when this is over?”
The Malakite sighed as the bus began to slow. “I don’t know if I can anymore. A part of me would like to, but it’s almost as if that is wishful thinking on my part.” He looked over at the front. “Lanus, why are we stopping?”
“Chomper needs to go to the bathroom.” The puppy had in fact woken up, stumbled over to Lanus and was whimpering at him. The older Virtue stopped the bus and grabbed the dog’s harness and leash. The puppy strained forward as soon as the door opened, and both he and Lanus disappeared into the grass.
Eric walked towards the door. “Actually, stepping outside isn’t a bad idea.”
Torael followed closely behind and they took in the night air. The loss of basic utilities and the abrupt removal of the smoke and dust in the air weeks ago had left the sky clearer than it had been for two centuries.
The Elohite stretched as he looked down the road. “It is amazing how peaceful the Earth is out here. I wonder if humanity will remember that and try to keep it this way after things have been resolved.”
Eric listened to the yapping of Chomper in the grass off to the side. “What do you think Gabriel would do at that point? There may very well be less cruelty to punish.”
“We do more than punish the cruel, Eric. We also inspire the fire of passion within people as well. Perhaps we will be able to focus on that more with Belial being destroyed.”
The young Malakite looked curiously at the Power. “Were you at Megiddo?”
“I killed more demons of Infernal Fire than I could count and have seen more destruction than I ever wish to remember,” Torael replied calmly. “I would personally prefer to see the less violent aspects of Fire take hold in the world again.”
Lanus bounded back over to the bus with Chomper hot on his heels. He gestured at the two of them. “Both of you fall back. Eric, grab a rifle and wait outside.”
Knowing it was pointless to even ask questions, Eric turned back onto the bus. He grabbed a rifle and two magazines and headed back to the front. He was joined a moment later by a confused Áinel.
Lanus gestured up the hill. “We have lights one thousand meters out. Definite motion but too far out to get numbers. You two get within three hundred and as best a count as you can.”
“Three of us.” Jamie stumbled down the stairs with his rifle slung over his shoulder.
Lanus scowled. “No. The two of them should be enough.”
Jamie folded his arms across his chest and stared at Lanus without flinching. “If there was any danger, you’d have said something by now. I’ve been talking to Ahrionel about being a Soldier of War. I’m not going to prove myself if you keep me towards the back.”
“You’re not going to prove yourself if you disobey us either.”
Eric put himself in between the two and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Lanus. He also has two good eyes and mine still hasn’t healed completely yet.”
The older Virtue shook his head. “In your own way, you can be as exasperating as Rani.” He looked over at the defiant boy. “You do exactly what Áinel and Eric tell you to do. No arguments and no second-guessing. And if things get bad out there-“Lanus moved closer until there was only a few inches of space between him and the boy- “You get back here. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir. Scout ahead, get numbers, follow the orders of the two angels and retreat like hell if they get killed.”
Eric opened his mouth to chastise Jamie for the language he was using, but Áinel pulled him aside. “Say nothing. Trust me, Lanus is trying very hard not to laugh right now.”
The Virtue stepped back and gestured towards the road. “Time to step out. Áinel? You leading?
The Seraph chuckled and guided the trio towards the lights that Lanus saw. After a moment, they reached the crest of a hill. Áinel waved the other two down to prone position, then elbowed her way forward with binoculars in hand. Eric could see her shoulders tense as she took a careful look around.
Eric could sense her gasp more than hear it, just before she crawled back to them. In the dim light, they could see she was smiling.
“Eric, wait here for my signal. Jamie, go back to the others and tell them it is all right. Tell them… tell them it is Mother Searin, they will understand.”
“Mother Sharon?” the boy asked.
“Close enough.” Jamie scurried off, leaving Eric to raise an eyebrow.
Áinel nodded happily. “A Saint of War and a dear friend. We have found some of our comrades.”
“So what you’re saying is that they probably are already aware of our presence here?”
The sound of four rifles having rounds chambered answered Eric. In spite of that, Áinel was grinning cheerfully. “Exactly.”
Back at the bus, Lanus had just ushered everyone
back inside and settled into guard duty when he heard small footsteps coming
out of the bus. Young Michael peered up at him with a lopsided smile.
“Well sheeit Lanus, took y’all long enough to get hear.”
Lanus stared and blinked for a moment, then let himself relax. “Nice to see you too, Bubba.”
That sent Raniel racing forward. “Did you say Bubba?”
Michael’s face shifted. “Howdy, Rani. Now whar’s th’other two?”
Lanus whistled into the bus, calling Ahrionel forward. Torael followed, curious to see what was going on.
Jamie came jogging back to the bus then, and headed straight for the elder Malakite.
“What is it?” Lanus asked.
“Áinel says to tell you that it’s alright. She says it’s… Mother Sharon and that you’d know what that means.” He frowned. “Why is Mike looking at me like that?”
“His body is being borrowed by one of our friends. It’s alright, it’s like when Ushiel talked to us with Lisa.”
“Call me Bubba,” the Kyriotate offered Mike’s small hand. Jamie shook it carefully while Bubba squinted. “Who’s Ushiel?”
Lanus and Raniel made introductions, with the two Kyriotates scowling at each other. Bubba hopped to Jesse’s body to better glare at his Choirmate.
“Áinel will be wondering what’s keeping us,” Ahrionel observed quietly. “Is it alright to come down to the camp?”
“Sheeit yeah, bring everybody. We got enough brotherhood to go around.”
Bubba pulled Lanus aside as Raniel herded the rest back onto the bus. “Hey, what’s up with that other fella, the one what looks like a college kid?”
“Alexander? We found him a few states back, why?”
“Sumpin’ ain’t raht about him. I tried to jump into him an’ bounced out like I’d tried to tickle David. Ain’t no human what can pull that off, y’know.”
Lanus frowned. “I’ve sensed no danger from him.”
“Have ya sensed anything from him?”
Lanus’ frown deepened. “I can feel that he does follow some sort of honor, but it seems to be his own.”
Bubba nodded slowly. “Keep an eye on him. Maybe I’m jus’ havin’ a bad night or somethin’.”
“So what do we do with them, Chelsea?” asked
the man that was in the group that confronted Áinel and Eric.
The woman that led the group shrugged. “We wait for word from Bubba. But if any of them move, shoot to kill.”
Áinel looked up from her prone position on the ground. “We’re Servitors of War. Just let us speak to Mother Searin.”
“And if they say anything else, shoot to kill.”
Áinel glared at the woman and let loose a flood of words in a language that Eric had never heard. However, the Seraph's posture and gestures indicated that not one word was nice. Two of the people went very pale and slung rifles over their shoulders with inhuman speed. One of them put himself in front of Chelsea.
“They’re safe, Chelsea. Trust me on this.” He held out his hand to Áinel.
“Sorry, but you know as well as I do the kind of precautions we need to take.”
The Seraph took the offered hand and gestured at Eric to stand up. “And who are you?”
“Damranis, Elohite of the Sword, now in service to War. Over here is Chelsea, Saint of the Sword, Lahmi, Cherub of War, and Elnaam, Mercurian of Trade in Service to War.” Each one nodded in greeting as the Elohite gestured at them.
Áinel and Eric stood to face the group. “I am Áinel, Seraph of War and this is Ehremael, Malakite of Christopher. I have a feeling that we’ve been looking for you.”
Elnaam looked over in interest. “One of Christopher’s?”
“Yes. Is that a problem?”
“Just the opposite.” The Mercurian looked over at Chelsea. “By your leave?” The woman nodded and Elnaam gestured at Eric. “Come on. We need your help.”
Chelsea blinked and her eyes lost focus for a second before locking onto Elnaam. “How about waitin’ fer us, dammit? Bus will get us all there a lot quicker!”
Elnaam smiled at the sudden change in tone from the Saint. “Sorry, Bubba.”
Áinel and Eric looked up in surprise. “Bubba?” Eric asked. “How’ve you been, Kyrio?”
Chelsea glanced over at the two angels in amusement. “Damn. Haven’t seen you kids for a long tahm. You weren’t in New York at the time it went up, were ya?”
“No,” Áinel replied. “We both left a few years ago.”
“We hadn’t seen each other since.” Eric added.
Further conversation was put on hold as the bus rumbled to a stop. Raniel’s crazed smile greeted them as they boarded. “Welcome back! So, Mother Searin is out there? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen her.”
“And hopefully, she’s forgiven you since.” Lanus muttered. Samantha giggled at the Virtue’s remark briefly then fell silent again.
The mood on the bus had lightened considerably. The children began to wake and stared nervously at the new strangers on the bus. Eric was quick to reassure them and calmed their fears. Once they settled down, he looked over at Elnaam.
“You were saying?”
The Mercurian nodded. “We have a few children in the group. Mother Searin has a better grasp on how to handle them, but she’s already overwhelmed.”
“You’re an Intercessionist,” Eric answered. “Shouldn’t this be easy for you?”
“I was a financial analyst at a major company. I didn’t have much time to interact with children. Your experience would be welcome here.”
The bus passed through a group of armed guards and
pulled off to the side of the road. A hasty encampment had been set
here for the night. Several mobile homes were in a circle off to
the side. The smell of a campfire reached them as they stepped off
A middle-aged woman stood up to greet them as they approached. Her wary expression changed instantly when she saw who it was.
“Áinel! Lanus! It’s good to see you again.”
The two angels bowed as the came near. “Hello again, Searin,” Lanus rumbled. “We’re glad you survived the battle.”
Searin hugged them both and smiled. “I was out of the front lines, but I removed a nest of Hellsworn in my town. They did not expect kindly old Searin to come in with a shotgun and a sword. Now where-“
“Rightbehindyou. Hi, Searin!”
“Raniel. I knew you had to be close by.”
“Aww. How did you guess?”
“A bus being driven like a race car was kind of a dead giveaway.”
Elnaam coughed politely. “Mother, Searin. They also have one of Christopher’s Servitors with them.”
The Saint looked over at the Malakite who was standing as out of the way as possible. “Well, come on over. Who are you?”
Eric grinned at her. He had to admit that he liked this Saint. “I go by Eric. I am not bound to Christopher’s service anymore, but I would be happy to help you out.”
Searin nodded. “We have a few children here. Oldest one is thirteen and the youngest is a baby. In fact-” The Saint looked over her shoulder.
“Harold? Where is Jason?”
A large man looked up from the fire. “He’s right over…errm.”
Eric looked amused at the scrambling sounds nearby. “Let me guess. Jason has learned how to walk?”
Elnaam shook his head. “Actually, Jason has skipped walking and decided that running is more fun.”
Eric smiled gently and looked around. He took a few steps into the bushes, and then bent over to scoop the toddler. Jason squealed in surprise, then took a good look at his captor. The surprise turned to a squeal of delight, and the toddler threw open his arms for a hug.
Searin smiled and joined them. “Here, I can take him. I suspect he’ll be needing a diaper change anyway.”
Eric glanced in that direction. “He’s a bit squishy, yes.” He handed the toddler to the Saint. “You said you had others?” he asked, following her towards one of the intact buildings. She led him to a bathroom, where she set to changing Jason’s diaper and continued the conversation.
“Aye, we’ve got a wee one, younger than Jason here, that we can’t even figure out her name. No identification anywhere nearby and no adults that admit to knowing who she belongs to. Then we’ve got Mark, he’s six. Again, no trace of family, and he hasn’t been able to help. We’ve not been able to place him with any other humans yet, and he’s lonely with no-one else his age.”
“We have three for him then, five and six years old.”
“The Marked one, I saw her.” Searin sighed as Jason squealed and squirmed. “Well, if ye dinna like it, ye should learn to use the privy,” she told the child, although with a gentle smile.
Eric shook his head. “We can find no reason for her to be Marked. It just appeared without warning. She… she is one of the reasons I chose… chose to be Outcast.”
Searin turned her comforting smile on the Malakite. “I know ‘tis hard for ye. When ye find him, Michael can offer a place in his service, if you want it.”
Eric nodded. “Áinel and her brothers seem to think he will. So only the three children?” he changed the subject smoothly.
“There’s one other, Nina. We think she is in her early teens, but we’re not sure. She is nearly completely withdrawn. She responds to commands, but nothing else. She just stares at the floor, doesn’t even move unless she’s told.” Searin’s voice turned mournful. “We don’t know what kind of abuse she’s been through, but it’s been severe.” She deftly whipped a diaper around Jason’s bottom and set him down.
“There you go, little one. Off with ya.”
Jason looked around a moment towards the door and then held up his arms towards Eric. The Malakite indulged the boy and lifted him up. Jason babbled at him for a moment before Eric answered in kind.
“That should solve the problem Searin. He knows that he needs to ask to use the bathroom next time.” He looked over at the Saint who was regarding him with some puzzlement.
“It’s a gift to some of us who serve Christopher. We can understand children who don’t have language skills yet.”
“Then keep close to them, will you? We need that with the children.” The Saint and the Virtue stepped outside into the cool night air. Eric smiled as he heard the delighted squeals of children playing.
“Oh good. I see that Mark has found the others.”
In fact, Mark, Lisa, Jill and Michael were engaged in an enthusiastic game of tag. They were racing around Raniel and Chomper was following along as best he could. Eric made his way over to Lanus. The older Malakite was engaged in a discussion with three other figures. He gestured at Eric as he passed by.
“Come on over, little brother. There are some people I want you to meet.”
As Eric felt the fire they were standing around start to heat him up, the three people near Lanus stared at him with an intense gaze.
“This is Harold, Nichole, and Jennifer. Fellow Virtues of Michael.” He turned to face the group. “This is Ehremael, or Eric, former Servitor of Christopher’s. We picked him up shortly after we arrived on Earth.”
Eric recognized Harold as the one who had lost track of Jason. The large Malakite was staring at him appraisingly. “Oh really? He doesn’t look like much, Lanus.”
Eric’s eyes narrowed. “And what are you judging that by?”
“Well, youngling, it’s nothing personal. But Children angels are generally not suited for combat. At least with you, we have an extra pair of hands with the little ones.”
“Oh, I’m more than that. I’ve already been in battle since everything went to Hell.”
Lanus glared at Harold. “We don’t have time for this. We’re taking him to Michael.”
Eric snarled at Lanus. “And you don’t speak for me yet, brother.” He pushed his way over to Harold. “Are you challenging me? If so, say it already so we can step out so I can kick your ass and get this over with.”
The larger Virtue reached to the side and pulled out a long sword. “Step over towards the clearing then youngster. I think we need to settle a few things before you stay with us.”
Eric followed where Harold was pointing. He snatched a staff out of the ground and clutched it tightly.
Áinel and Ahrionel had sat down by Raniel while the commotion started.
“What’s going on?” Ahrionel asked.
“Quick challenge from the looks of things,” Raniel asked. “Eric’s in a duel with Harold.”
“Damn it!” Ahrie snarled. “Why now?” He stood up and began to head towards the circle that was forming.
Lanus walked up to them and put a firm hand on Ahrionel. “Sit down, Ahrie. This needs to happen.”
“Lanus, you should know that we don’t need this.”
“We don’t, but Eric does. He’s not going to be accepted by them unless this duel goes on.” He held up his hand before the Cherub could object. “Eric chewed me out, Ahrie and challenged Harold himself. Let him be.”
Áinel’s eyes widened at that last statement. “You mean that? He actually initiated the challenge?”
The grin that spread across Lanus’ face caught them all by surprise. “Oh yes he did. And I’ve even bet on him.”
Harold and Eric had stopped in an area away from the campsite. The Malakite of War was smiling unpleasantly.
“You know, you could back out without shame, boy. I was only-“
The staff whirled towards his head. Harold barely brought up his sword in time to parry it. Harold staggered back as Eric advanced.
“You could always back down from me as well, Harold. Or you could just shut up and fight.”
Harold swung his sword to fend off Eric. The two began to circle around each other. The sounds of the crowd had fallen away from them as they fought.
“Well, you have courage, boy. I’ll admit that. But that stick isn’t going to help you any longer.” Harold’s sword lunged at Eric’s face. The staff came up and cracked sharply as it splintered.
The Malakite of War had counted on that being the end of the duel. But Eric sidestepped the blow and struck Harold twice across the head with the two halves of his weapon. As Harold staggered back, Eric wrenched his sword out of his hand and tripped him.
As the haze of pain cleared, Harold could feel the tip of his own sword against his throat. He looked up and saw Eric facing him calmly.
“Either you concede right here and now or I’m going to finish this permanently.” Eric felt a calm spread through him after saying this. He knew that the War angels would probably never accept him after this, but he was not going to be bullied. He waited silently for Harold’s answer.
He did not expect the prone Virtue to start laughing. Harold roared with amusement at how quickly he lost to this spirited Malakite.
“All right, Eric. You did good and you’ve won.” He held up his hand. “Help me up, would you?”
With a confused expression, Eric assisted Harold to his feet and handed his sword back. “So that’s the challenge then?”
Harold dusted off his clothes. “It was never to the death, but we Michaelites always have to test the new kids. That’s just the way we do things and you handled it well. Come on now; there’s bound to be some beer left around here.”
Lanus was beaming like a proud father as the group dispersed. “If you’ll excuse me. I have some debts to collect on.”
Raniel had to admit to himself that he did
not expect Eric to come around so quickly. Sure, he was just like
any other Malakite in a fight, but some of the more peaceful angels were
hesitant to dive into the fighting. He was about to sneak over to
Lanus and see what his friend had won when he sensed someone sit next to
Samantha was staring past him at the fires that flared to life after the duel. Her eyes had lost the terror that had been in the foreground for so long.
The Wheel smiled encouragingly at her as she sat down next to him. “Glad to see you off of the bus. Would you like to talk a while?”
“I would, yes. So you’re called Raniel?”
“Yep. For a long time.”
“I never believed that angels and demons were real. How old are you?”
The Ofanite did some rapid calculation. “Well, we don’t really count age like you do, but in Earth terms I’m about four thousand years old. Out of our happy group, I am only older than Áinel and Eric.”
Torael had quietly joined the two as they talked. “We don’t truly age like you do, but we feel the passage of time the same way.”
The young woman nodded as she took in the new information. “I had a normal life before all of this. I was just a college student struggling along and trying to graduate. All of the sudden, my teachers and friends are getting killed, my dorm is destroyed, and Alexander is dragging me towards the bomb shelter.”
The Elohite arched an eyebrow. “Really? He never said anything about that.”
“He’s always been kind of a quiet, nerdy guy. I had a few classes with him. I don’t even know why he dragged me out of there. But when we were in the shelter, I just lost interest in talking.”
Torael glanced at Raniel and Samantha. For a moment, he seemed lost in thought, and then he walked away with a small smile to both of them.
“So what got you talking again, Samantha? Not to say that I am ungrateful, mind you.”
Samantha pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around them. “Just a general feeling of security. The nightmares that I was having have faded and I am starting to feel a bit more myself.” She grinned for the first time that Raniel had seen. “Besides, I figure that if I said something it would shock you into silence.”
The Ofanite applauded. “Well done. I’m impressed.”
Around the fires, angels and humans gathered, talked, and shared
stories. As the night pressed on, those who had them took out instruments
and began to play. The others joined in with song wherever they could.
Someone had pressed a violin into Áinel’s hands, and she was gleefully
playing along. Lisa sat at her feet, watching in fascination.
After a fast dancing song, the angels paused for a moment. Then,
those with male vessels began a low song, the words Hebrew. In groups,
the others joined in, forming a harmony in round, voices blending and rising.
One of the Elohim, perhaps sensing something, detached himself from the group and walked over to Alexander. The man was standing alone, outside the light, watching silently.
“You are certainly welcome to join us. Do you play anything?”
Alexander hesitated. “I… have played fiddle in the past.”
“Then come, join us. We have a few floating around.”
Alexander refused to move. The Elohite caught a faint sense of… sadness? Regret? Something deeper?
“It… would not be appropriate,” Alexander said tightly, before turning away and retreating from the light.