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Chapter 1, Part 2



Asrial


      A gong rolled through the room, so sonorous it rattled the halos against the wall. The angel glanced up at the plaint, eyes unfocused, and then swept his gaze back to her. "By the Fall! It is too late! He knows!"
      "A drill? Has that bell ever rung?" the angel holding Asrial demanded. The tocsin continued to toll, so loud Asrial heard it in the rock beneath her feet. "No? I thought not. Where is he?"
      "He was in Araboth."
      Asrial shivered at the mention of the seat of God.
      "He'll be a while, then. Take her to the camp to wait. He'll say what's to be done with her."
      "I can't stay," Asrial said as the first angel thrust her toward the second. The words sounded banal even to her, but they tumbled from her mouth anyway. "I have choir tomorrow morning, and it will take me all night to fly home—"
      "You should have thought of that before you came to Shamayim. Angels aren't supposed to come to Shamayim," the first angel said.
      "Then why are you here!" Asrial exclaimed.
      The first angel ignored her, walking away. A few moments later he was winging into the ruddy sky. As the clouds knotted above them, the bell finally fell silent, and an unnerving quiet filled the void left by its voice.
      The second angel shook his head. His rueful tone was friendlier than his compatriot's. "You will see, I suppose. Come with me, please... what is your name?"
      "As.. Asrial."
      "Asrial. I'm Tapheth." He wrapped a hand around her upper arm. "Come on. I'll show you to a tent while we await his pleasure."
      "Please, Tapheth," Asrial said, her voice cracking. "Who is 'he'?"
      He glanced at her, blue eyes darkened as if by a shadow. "The archangel Michael, God's Champion and our war leader, of course. Who else would be organizing the camps?"
      Before she could ask again, he ran to the edge of the cliff, blue and brown wings extended, and she was forced to fly with him away from the gray mountain. Asrial glanced once over her shoulder at the tower and the building as it dwindled from view.
      They flew toward the black patches Asrial had assumed to be cities devoted to the human souls succored by God's mercy; instead, as they flew nigh she saw the tents housed scores of angels, and the sound of the clanking of the forge and the sharp hiss of the whetting stone sent shivers through her body as Tapheth drew her to the ground. He kept his hand on her arm, guiding her past angels sitting on benches, mending armor or re-lacing sword hilts. The acrid stench of boiling leather turned her stomach.
      "Tapheth, why—"
      "Don't ask, for it's not for me to say. Perhaps the archangel will tell you if he deems you must know."
      Asrial shuddered. She curled her free arm around her ribs, the fabric of her thin chiton bunching beneath her breasts. The martial air of the camp distressed her. There was nothing gentle here. Even the soil begrudged life, and the few plants that grew along the ground were gray and stunted.
      "You can sit in here," Tapheth said, pushing open the flap of a small shadowed tent. "Your fate will be decided when the archangel comes."
      Asrial bunched her wings tightly to her body and managed a weak nod, then ducked inside. From the entrance, Tapheth's silhouette paused. "Don't worry. God is merciful."
      She understood now just how merciful God was... but of Michael's mercy, she knew nothing. Nevertheless, she smiled at Tapheth and then the tent flap dropped over the world and shut her away. Her halo offered some slim illumination, but as her hope dimmed, it ceased its healthy spin. The bench's wooden planks ground against her legs and her thin chiton was inadequate protection against Shamayim's harsh air. Tucking a thread of red-golden hair behind an ear, Asrial thought of the choir leader and mourned the curiosity that had spurred her to fly to the periculous edge of Heaven.
      Without the sight of the sky Asrial soon lost the measure of time. When a burly arm thrust the tent flap open, she did not know whether it had been an hour or a day since Tapheth had escorted her there; only that her hips and legs ached from sitting in a way they never had closer to Araboth, and that her wings trembled with the exhaustion of the enclosed space.
      "Angel Asrial?"
      "I am she," Asrial said, standing unsteadily.
      The man in the flap was not Tapheth, but neither was he Michael; his halo had the same breadth as hers. "I am to escort you to the archangel, where you are to answer for your acts."       "To answer... but I didn't... I haven't... it wasn't my intention to transgress!"
      The angel did not answer, and finally Asrial stepped out of the dark, her head bowed, and allowed herself to be led away. She listened to the clang of sword on sword, the hiss of the whetstone, the blended voices of male angels, listened to them until they faded and her guard took to the air, pulling her along. The sun had gone down and she could not see the moon... but the mountain she could see well enough, blocking the jewel-like light of the stars.
      Torches spilled golden light onto the top of the mountain beside the bell tower and the domed building. Some score of angels gathered there, and Asrial swallowed as she and her guard landed near them. Clapping his hand on her shoulder, he marched her to a sphere of warm light and the circle of angels therein.
      "I've brought her, sir."
      Several angels glanced their way but Asrial had eyes only for the one with his back to her, the one with wings whiter than snow, unmarred by decoration or bands, the one who stood taller than the others, as if he had been built along more heroic lines...
     ...the one with a white halo almost as broad as her arm, spinning so rapidly over his head it lit off frequent sparks that trailed into the thick air.
     Asrial almost stepped backward as the archangel turned to her. His golden hair fell in loose strands around a hard face, and beneath the golden slashes of his brows his eyes were as bright as cut emeralds.
     "So here's our wayward."
     Asrial shook. There was nothing in that stone-cold baritone to convince her that God's Champion had anything as soft as mercy in him.
     "What were you doing here, girl? Angels aren't supposed to fly away from God."
     "I... I wasn't trying to fly away from God, sir—"
     "No? What were you doing in Shamayim?"
     "Please, Archangel, I didn't know I wasn't supposed to be here."
     One of the other angels spoke. "Do we have time for this Michael? The look-outs have sighted the rest of the Eighth."
     "This is important," Michael said without ever relinquishing her eyes. "We cannot have disobedience in the ranks of God's own."
     "I did not mean to disobey, I didn't know—"
     "Didn't know! Do you think that will save you from the glory of God's wrath?" Michael's voice was rising. He stabbed a finger at the building. "See there what waits for those who would go against Him!"
     Asrial's knees lost their strength at the thunder in his voice. She tumbled to the ground, one hand lifted and the other splayed on the hard stone. "I would never go against Him!"
     "Then you would be wise to leave Shamayim. There are things here you were not meant to witness nor take part in. You were not invited. You must not return."
     "I meant no harm," Asrial whispered.
     "Go home, child." Michael strode toward the cliffs on the other side of the mountain landing, leaving her in the dirt. The other angels silently walked around her. Even the guard that had escorted her to the mount turned away, the glow of his halo lost as he abandoned her to the dark.
     Asrial's other hand fell. She could not bring herself to rise; her body was shaking too hard. The angels had taken their torches with them, and her halo's light was strong enough only to illumine her white skirts and the edges of her body. The heavy air was cold for spring and bit into the exposed flesh of her arms.
     As she sought the strength to leave, she saw another set of torches light on the edge of the mountain, accompanied by the landing of several other angels. From the strength of their halos she judged them to be the other archangels, and she shivered in fear. Why had they all gathered here?
     They talked with impunity, as if she were a non-entity.
     "I trust you haven't started the party without us."
     "This is not a party, Gabriel!" Michael's voice. "Only you would treat the final battle with such obscene levity."
     "If we cannot laugh at it, then we must surely cry. What plans are made?"
     "Nothing solid," another voice interjected. "We have gathered the strongest of the Ninth and begun training, but we cannot know exactly when and where the battle will ensue. For surely he knows that we're coming, and he is also preparing."
     Asrial shivered as the angels fell silent, wondering who the enemy was that required God's angels as soldiers. Surely nothing human...
     "Though where is certainly on Earth."
     "Earth would not survive an extended battle."
     "And yet it is the only place we can meet. He cannot come here anymore. And we certainly will not go there!"
     Another silence.
     "You know that we will have to involve all of the Ninth Choir, Michael." Gabriel again. He had a kinder voice, a low tenor.
     "It is not their affair," Michael said.
     "Why not?" A new voice, a bass that rumbled from the chest of the speaker. "This is not a vendetta, Michael, though by your mien you would turn it into one."
     "It is not a vendetta. It is the battle as prophesied. It was fated from the moment he Fell."
     Asrial's eyes widened, and she could not stop herself from glancing wildly at the group at the edge of the mountain.
     "Are you sure?" Another new voice asked. "He was dear to you—"
     "Dear to me! God's chief enemy is not dear to me, Uriel! He is my nemesis and I am glad that this battle has come at last! I intend to kill him myself, and as he bleeds I will finally wring from the Great Betrayer a confession of his guilt!"
     She could not bear the silent presence of the halos in the building and this conversation both. Her feet made no sound on the cold stone as she ran toward the torch-light. They did not see her until she pushed the two bodies nearest her apart.
     "Oh, sir! You must have mercy, you must!"
     There was a stunned quiet and Asrial found herself the object of not one, but all seven of the archangels' scrutinies.
     The one standing beside Michael wore his silver-gilt hair in a careless thong over skin the color of olive bark; his blue-eyed gaze was both keen and interested and his voice was Gabriel's. "And who is this? I didn't know you'd had the sense to bring women into it, Michael."
     "I thought I told you to leave," Michael said, ignoring the other entirely to advance on her.
     Asrial took a step to the side but did not leave the circle. "You did. But I heard you. You are planning to attack the Fallen ones!"
     "Smart, this one," one of the other archangels murmured, winning a few chuckles.
     "It is not your affair," Michael said.
     "You are!" Asrial drew in a breath. "But you must not! Surely you must see that, my lord."
     "It is prophesied."
     He was still advancing on her. Refusing to leave the curious but somehow benevolent group of the other members of the Eighth, Asrial walked in a circle, trying to keep Michael in front of her. She spread her wings and her hands. "Surely you must see it, Archangel. You must have mercy on them!"
      "Mercy! Mercy for those who would destroy God? Are you mad? Or have you Fallen as well?"
     "Michael," Gabriel said, his voice hardening.
     "If God has had mercy on them, you must as well!" Asrial cried out as her foot met the edge of the mountainside. Still Michael came and she leaned away, back. "Sir... the tower, the dome, the halos! Would you hate them for the sins that God has already forgiven?"
     "Be silent!"
     "Can't you see He is waiting for them to return?"
     "I will kill them if they set foot in His Heaven!"
     "He loves them, Archangel!"
     An inarticulate roar of rage erupted from the archangel's throat. Gabriel shouted and lunged for her but Michael's hand was too swift. Asrial's arms rose to shield herself but she could not stop it—could not stop the hand that slapped her cheek so hard her body spun out from beneath her halo.
     "Fall with them, then, Damn you!"
     The agony of the halo ripped from her soul was so great she could not scream, nor could she open her wings to save herself. Shamayim's heavy air tore around her body and dropped her, out of the grace of Heaven.
     Her halo lost and her wings useless, Asrial Fell.


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