Day One: Night
I should’ve just continued on to Asgard…
That single thought, tinged with annoyance as he chastised himself, was the only thing to go through Azrael’s head as the ground-level explosion sent him soaring haplessly through the night sky.
The thick, unnatural jungle seemed to tighten as if the gaping hole in the surface caused it pain. Upside-down and airborne, Azrael tucked his head to his chest and made out a snake-like branch crossing ahead of him as a ceiling was formed. As he shot beneath it, he reached above his head, grasping the limb. It was covered in some sort of slime, a thick with slippery residue that nearly caused Azrael to lose his grip. He dug in, and the momentum sent flipping, flying over the branch before he landed atop it solidly. A jolt of pain fired through his wrist as the joint was hyper-extended. He clutched his wrist and shook out his hand to dull the pain; he would have to deal with his injury later.
Azrael heard a terrified scream; someone else was flying helplessly through the sky. Keeping his eyes on the scene below, Azrael reached out to his left, snatched Anders out of the air by his shirt, and set the boy down beside him on the branch.
“Thank you…” Anders was panting, his body so shaky that the entire branch was vibrating, “What’s going on?”
“SHH!” Azrael hissed.
A deep, bellowing noise came from the hole; something large had just arrived. The entire jungle shook with the force of the demonic scream. Azrael felt Anders shift beside him. He imagined the boy was covering his ears. The scream hit with the force of a hurricane, and Azrael had to hold himself to the branch to keep from being blown away. He had dealt with worse.
Azrael almost cursed the Black Night, but wondered if the attack had been timed this way purposefully. He was only ten feet from the ground, but he might as well have been staring into a void; he could make out nothing, not even the mammoth beast that had just emerged.
The stench! It struck all at once, and even as Azrael threw his forearm in front of his face, he heard Anders wretch and vomit. The boy had never been this close to sulfuric brimstone before. Azrael had encountered it frequently in Olymparus, but he had never been this close. They were indeed directly over Hell. Azrael reached to his left, grasping Anders shoulder to steady the poor boy.
John. Where was John? Azrael realized for the first time that he couldn’t even sense the boy. Azrael grit his teeth in cold recognition. John was clearly able to take care of himself, but if he was dead, there wasn’t anything to be done now…Wait, he thought.
His Thanatonian powers had faded to near nothingness, but Azrael could still sense death in the immediate area. He didn’t sense John; the teen must still be alive.
Azrael’s vision sharpened as he tried not to panic. If he’d thought Yang or Yin would be listening, he would’ve prayed that he was wrong, that he couldn’t have been seeing what was pouring upwards out of the hole, but he wasn’t naïve. Azrael knew neither of them heard prayer anymore; they were both too consumed with this pointless conflict.
They were black, faceless glass enveloped by dark fire. Their forms were barely humanoid; they had no appendages, only mere stumps at the end of misshapen arms and legs. Their heads bore no faces, no characteristics of any sort, and yet they groaned hungrily all the same.
There were hundreds –maybe thousands – of them. Their groans rose sharply as they came together, forming an even larger monstrosity. The monsters separated just as quickly; they seemed indifferent to the change. As they rose endlessly from the bowels of Hell, this process repeated itself over and over again.
It had been a long time since Azrael had felt true fear, but he had seen these things before. They were Yin’s answer to the Thanatonian Legion; she had been searching for a method to match the soul-wielding power Gabriel had developed after retiring. This was her result: creatures that could not be killed because they were already dead, wielding the power to kill both body and soul.
Olymparus had weathered attacks over the years, both by bored Sefiroth who had nothing better to do and by Rodentia and other armies of Hell looking to ‘punish’ fallen angels hoping for redemption. But the skirmishes were minor and fatalities were rare.
Then Yin had sent these things.
At the time, Azrael had just lost a brutal sparring match to his brother, who had intended to offer his services to Hell. As strict as his father was, he recognized Azrael’s shaken confidence and advised him to volunteer for the Thanatonians. Doing so would ensure that Azrael would never participate in the war, merely clean up the aftermath. Azrael was skilled, but he hated fighting, and his father knew that.
In hindsight, Azrael wondered if his father had sent them away because he knew Yin was planning their annihilation. Olymparus was the largest of many cities that welcomed fallen angels and demons seeking amnesty. Olymparus was also producing the most crosslings, the results of unholy unions. These hybrid creatures were welcomed by neither side and had the power to control both Holy and Hellish magic.
Yin decided they were too much of a threat to be allowed to go on living. It had been the only time these…these things had been released. Olymparus had no answer for them. They didn’t kill, they absorbed. Any living thing they came into contact with became assimilated into them, and it was not a painless process. Victims appeared to melt before merging with their killers.
It was the only time there was Valkryie intervention in a city not recognized by Heaven. The Valkryies, as always, had found a way to destroy them.
Azrael, a new inductee in the Thanatonian Legion, had to be physically restrained as he observed through glass as his people were slaughtered. His father had been among the survivors, and the town had been rebuilt. Azrael had hoped to never see those things again.
But here they were.
And they were heading away from the Great Wind Gate, which meant…
“We have to go,” Azrael whispered, the fear evident in his voice. He tapped Anders twice on the shoulder before turning around and looking for another perch. “We need to return to your city, now.”
Anders stood, and as the branch heaved, Azrael realized that the boy was about to jump. Azrael whirled quickly and nearly snatched the boy out of mid-air, holding him by the collar of his shirt. “What?” Anders snapped, irritated as Azrael hoisted him back up. “Let’s get the drop on them!”
Azrael pointed his finger inches from Anders’ face. “If you touch those things,” he seethed, “you’ll be voided, do you understand me?”
Anders didn’t answer, and in the dark, Azrael couldn’t clearly see his face. If the boy wanted to commit suicide beyond his warning, so be it. The point was moot. Anders nodded.
“Stay off the ground.” Azrael instructed as the Eternal Damned passed beneath them. “Stick to the branches. Understand?”
“Yes…” Anders replied, and Azrael was reassured by the boy’s tone of voice; he was scared. Good. Maybe he’ll think clearly now.
The Eternally Damned were moving at an incredible pace, making a beeline for Beal City. Beneath their plodding, the intense heat of their fire melted the sand beneath them, and those that brought up the rear slid on new glass. Death begetting death, Azrael thought as he took three steps before leaping in the air, reaching for a curved limb ahead of him as he flew. He caught the limb effortlessly, keeping his feet away from the creatures now five feet beneath him. Using the momentum of his swing, he flew forward onto a waiting limb outstretched before him. He raced along that limb, Anders keeping pace, lowering into a glide as the limb rose to an incline. Azrael flew from the edge of the limb, grabbing a nearby vine and swinging up to a branch that hung horizontally above him. Azrael flipped from that branch to one higher before finally alighting on a large leaf nearly forty feet from the ground. Azrael was impressed when Anders landed beside him seconds later. The emotion switched to horror as Azrael looked down, seeing how quickly the Eternal Damned were leaving them behind. Anders spoke what they were both thinking. “Azrael,” he said softly, “We’ll never keep pace like this.”
Azrael looked to Anders, unsure of what to say. The boy was right.
The jungle moved and again became alive. Above them, the ceiling opened, as thick, muscular branches lowered and intertwined quickly, as though the entire thing was going through some monstrous transformation. Yet, as the world changed around them, the leaf Azrael and Anders stood on didn’t sway.
Above them, something glowed, causing Azrael and Anders to look up. A single star had illuminated in the sky above. Something audibly snapped as though broken, and liquid could be heard gushing. It struck a large leaf above them, which was forced downward by the impact. The liquid caused the leaf to be reflective. The starlight bounced from the leaf, creating a pinprick reflection ahead of the Azrael and Anders.
What they saw was amazing.
The branches had joined together. Although it curved and corkscrewed in some places, it went on for miles. It never dropped lower than a few feet above the Eternal Damned, and Azrael somehow knew in the pit of his soul it would take them all the way back to the city.
“We’ll keep pace now,” Azrael whispered, daring to be hopeful.
Anders was already ahead of him, taking a few steps and lowering into a glide before shooting off down the makeshift road. Azrael quickly followed, lowering his chest as close as possible to the ground in an attempt to boost his speed.
There were battle sounds behind them. The beast screamed. Then John screamed.
Azrael fought his own instinct to turn back even as he felt Anders’ thoughts. “Don’t!” Azrael reached, and ahead of him, Anders kept moving ahead, curving and winding along the branches. “John is doing what he must, we have to save your people. What is in Beal City?”
“What?” Anders responded telepathically, flipping upside down as the branch corkscrewed. Azrael, just behind, stole a quick glance up and saw that they were pulling ahead of the Eternal Damned. Still, he clenched his fists, willing a quick burst of speed. “Nothing,” Anders replied in Azrael’s mind. “It’s a shantytown. I helped build it when I was a kid.”
“Anders, Yin would not have sent these creatures for a mere shantytown,” Azrael reached impatiently as the branch lowered, and the two were gliding normally again. “These creatures are not sent for anything less than total destruction. What in your city warrants that?”
“I don’t know!” Anders insisted. Wind whipped past them as they pulled ahead of the Eternal Damned at the edge of the jungle. The branch lowered to the sand as they entered the clearing, and within moments, Anders and Azrael were gliding along the sand. They both boosted their speed and rocketed off, leaving identical, rising sand wakes in their midst. Behind them, the strange groaning of their hunters was ever-present. They didn’t have much time.
Azrael considered reaching into Anders’ mind and forcing the answers, but didn’t want to wreck the little imp’s mind in the process. But the boy was clearly lying and they didn’t have time for that. “Anders, damn you!” Azrael growled telepathically. “Every single person you know and love is about to meet the worst kind of ending. I’m not trying to misappropriate your secret; if we remove what they’re after, then we eliminate their reason for being there. WHAT IS IN BEAL CITY!?”
“How do you know they’re not here for you!?” Anders shot back, angrily, as the shadows of Beal City rose on the horizon not five miles ahead. “You’re the one who’s supposed to go to Asgard and get all that power! How do you know they’re not here for you and Michael?!”
“Michael?” Azrael asked, momentarily confused. He felt Anders’ mind freeze up. The boy had let something valuable slip. “You mean John?”
Anders said nothing as they approached the edge of Beal City, which was silent as everyone slept. They entered the town from its rear, and what remained of the church stood as a jagged set of shadows piercing the night. Anders righted himself, and Azrael pulled up beside him. “How did you know about Asgard?” Azrael said as he caught his breath. “Michael…as in Michael St. Ambrose? The one who’s father–?”
“Yes,” Anders replied, looking as serious as Azrael had ever seen him. “He doesn’t know that we know. He has to get to Asgard, Azrael. So do you and the other two.”
Azrael’s mouth fell open in surprise. “How do you know all this?”
Anders shook his head as they silently made their way into town. “It’s just who we are, Azrael. It’s who we’ve always been.”
Anders stopped as the groaning could now be heard approaching in the distance. They had a few minutes, maybe less. Azrael, riveted, was unable to take his eyes from this young boy who had grown up suddenly, right in front of him.
When Anders looked at Azrael, his blue eyes glowed so intensely that Azrael could see them clearly in the night. “Listen, Azrael,” Anders spoke sharply. “I know you’re afraid of what’s coming, but we have a way to deal with them. Michael will be along shortly, and with his help we can drive them back. If you help us with this, I can show you how to get to Asgard swiftly.”
Azrael was in complete shock. It was now Anders who was giving instruction. “We don’t have warriors anymore, Azrael!” Anders barked. “This is why I drew Michael here, and this is why your brother burned down our church! If you don’t fight for us, we’ll be wiped out. Please.”
Azrael let the information sink in. He didn’t think Angels—true Angels—existed anymore. But here they were, hiding in plain sight, living peaceful lives in secret. And the war had found them.
Azrael had seen what the Eternal Damned were capable of. He couldn’t imagine what could possibly repel them, outside of anything Asgardian. “Alright,” He agreed, and Anders visibly relaxed a bit. “What did you have in mind?”
“Come with me,” Anders beckoned, jogging away. “I want to show you something.”
Anders ran off into the darkness. Azrael glanced behind him. Something dark, blacker than the night, was present on the horizon, becoming larger as it drew closer.
Maybe he should’ve continued to Asgard, but for now, he had to live by his decision.
Or die by it…
With Anders moving further away and the Eternal Damned closing in, Azrael raced into the darkness after the boy.
(c) Avery K. Tingle for Akting Out LLC
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