Fallen Angels – Preview
Prologue – Destiny
A symphony of clangs echoes along the walls, the sound carrying itself through the cave’s multitude of tunnels, away from its source. In the centre of the cave stand two armoured warriors, garbed in burnished bronze and wielding the finest blades forged by human hands.
With graceful movements that belie the weight of their armour, they thrust their spears whilst evading, parrying or blocking the other’s strikes. Bar the coloured plumes atop their helmets, there was little to differentiate the two, for both were equally skilled in their chosen weapons. They were the champions of their respective nations, their skills having been tempered and perfected due to two decades of endless war.
Thrust, swish, clang, slash, the chaotic sounds of battle continue. Though they had fought since the rise of the morning sun, neither were showing signs of weakening or relenting. Both had been blessed by a plethora of Gods, each with a different stake in the unending war. Such fickle patrons would never allow their champions to shame them, not without a heavy cost. This duel had been foreshadowed in their destinies from the moment their respective fathers had allowed them to playfully swing a wooden sword.
Snap. The sound of snapping spear shafts concludes the first act as both combatants fall to their knees, their chests heaving as they gasp for breath. Though no words are spoken, it was clear that both had come to respect the other. In another, more peaceful age, they could have been friends or at least friendly rivals.
But despite the far-reaching consequences of the battle, there was only a single mortal witness, all others having been slain or banished. In the darkened corner, far from the reach of a careless thrust or swing sat a young woman, garbed in noble attire.
Though her features are hidden by a silk shawl with an intricate floral design, it did little to conceal her obvious nymph-like beauty. And despite her serene attitude, no one would believe she was here willingly, having been gagged and her hands and feet bound by thick rope.
Clang. The drum-like drone of shields being bashed against each other announces the end of the second act. But this time, the two sweat-drenched actors stagger away from each other, their once energetic athletic limbs now nearly lifeless.
Wiping away the sweat from their eyes, the warriors slowly rise. Both were instinctively sensing that the end was near. Raising their swords high, they salute the other whilst wetting their now dry lips.
They roar the name of their patron deities whilst surging forward, empting what little of the reserves they had remaining as they seek to end the fight with a single blow. But they had unknowingly called to the same God, one who had equally blessed them both and was satisfied by whatever the result.
The heavy clash of swords causes both blades to bend, but one warps more than the other and shatters. A surprised gasp escapes the lips of the now bladeless champion as they watch the shards of bronze scatter in front of them, but it does not last long. Carried forward by the momentum of their wielder’s swing, the still whole blade embeds itself in its target’s chest.
Falling into each other’s embrace, the two champions, one with plumes of white feathers, the other with black, stare into each other’s eyes with anxious smiles on both of their lips. The agonising wait ends when ones falls to the ground, a look of satisfaction etched onto their features.
Now alone, the victor stands silent, their only movements coming from their eyes as they continue to linger on the fallen. Taking a deep breathe, they solemnly kneel and begin to rummage through the slain’s clothing. Soon they find what they are looking for, a small leather purse containing a pair of silver coins. Placing them atop the deceased’s closed eyes, the victor whispers a prayer before standing.
Having performed the victor’s duty, they without ceremony wrench their weapon free before turning and staggering towards the still bound observer. With a pair of deft swings, they cut them loose before dropping their blade and staggering back and sliding down the damp cave wall.
Exhausted, they unclasp the straps of their black plumed helmet and throw it aside, exposing their sweat drenched face and hair to the cold air. Too weary to move, they turn their bright blue eyes to the woman sat next to them and wait.
Time passes and the woman remains silent and unmoving, their eyes affixed to the far cave wall, as if searching for something unseen. Unable to wait any longer, the warrior reaches out, but the sudden movement causes a gut wrenching pain to form in their side and they begin to cough. Doubled over, they notice the layer of red that forms on their fingers and the taste of copper that lingers on their lips.
Fearfully, they look down and notice, finally, the dagger which had pierced their side. Having lived their life by the sword, they knew the grievous nature of the wound and chose not to waste time on pointless treatments. Instead, they ask the woman the only question that truly mattered.
“Lady Oracle, tell me, did we win?”
The woman, as if roused from a dream, turns their head and faces them for the first time. With a gentle smile, they reach out and touch the warrior’s face. The warrior finds their warm touch soothing as they smell a scent of wildflowers emanating from their skin. Pulling back their veil, the woman allows the warrior to stare into their almost glowing green eyes.
As the cryptic whisper escapes the woman’s lips, an earth-shattering roar is heard in the distance which is followed immediately by a series of tremors. As shards of rock and thick slabs fall from the roof of the cave, the warrior pushes the woman into a hollow.
Raising their shield above their head, they shelter the woman from the falling debris, but as the weight above their shield continues to increase, they knew this would be their final act. Slowly the warrior’s vision darkens, but before it claims them, they hear a final whisper.
“But we will.”
Arc 1 – Philotimo
I suddenly jolt as a cold shiver travels down the length of my spine, which is followed by the raising of the hairs on the back of my hand. Instinctively, I come to a stop and allow my eyes to flicker cautiously in every direction as I search for the source of my fear.
It was an emotion I had grown to know well due to the countless attempts on my life. Though my eyes find nothing obvious, I trust my instincts and continue to search and soon my gaze is drawn to the nearby undergrowth.
Spying something silver buried beneath a mound of leaves, I reach for the sword on my waist. Steadying my trembling limbs, I silently draw the sword and hold it outstretched with both hands.
The creature or thing suddenly growls, the guttural sound is followed by the opening of a single eye which looks into both of mine. Its predatory gaze causes my fingers to turn a deathly white as I tighten the grip on my suddenly child-like blade.
Slowly, a bear-sized creature rises and shakes off the leaves and branches which had formed its blanket. Now, fully exposed to its aura of fear-inducing splendour, the breath leaves my body and I find myself unable to do anything more than pray to the Gods.
Though it appeared wolf-like, it had none of the loveable traits of the animals I knew, the ones bred in the Palace as pets and hunting companions. Its shaggy fur was coarse and contained a mixture of dull greys and black hues and within its now open maw were three rows of serrated teeth, akin to the sharks which swam in the oceans.
I watch with trepidation as the creature raises its snout and sniffs the air, as if searching for something before its single dull grey eye looks away from me. Its unexpected movement allows me to think clearly and I quickly realised that the creature was blind. A feeling of relief soon swirls within me as the creature slowly turns away and walks back into the gloom.
But the relief is quickly shattered when I take a desperate gulp of air, my body suddenly remembering to breathe after holding my breath for so long. The sound is enough to draw the creature’s attention, causing it to turn and sniff the air once more. But unlike the first time, the creature does not turn away but instead emits a fierce howl whilst snarling from its upturned lips.
Step by step, the creature moves closer, escaping the darkness of the canopy which had concealed its true form. As the sunlight strikes its body, a second head emerges.
Knowing the beast’s identity is enough to cause a stream of sweat to drip down my helmeted brow and shatter the fear which had once paralysed my body. Almost pleadingly, I will my legs to move, to step away from the looming danger.
But with every step backwards, my breathing grows increasingly shallower as I fight against the panic which was on the verge of overwhelming my thoughts. I wanted to run, but I knew that my fear encumbered limbs would be quickly outmatched by the great strides of this beast.
“Why did I have to go so far?”
I chastise myself for the foolish decision to venture this deeply into the forest, all to avoid the embarrassing gazes of the men of my party.
But any further thoughts are interrupted by the whistling of a pair of arrows that burst from the undergrowth and embed themselves in the twin snouts of the beast.
A figure garbed in dull bronze armour bursts from the treeline, their breathing haggard as they call my name. Grasping my shoulder, they throw me backwards whilst parrying the downward sweep of the Khaos spawn’s claws. Their movements appear effortless as they quickly switch to offence and thrust upwards with the flaming torch held in their hand into the beast’s lupine snout.
“Stay behind me.”
Those simple words cause tears of relief to form within my eyes as I recognise my saviour’s voice.
I utter their name as they place themselves a few steps in front of me, guarding me with their shield and body as the beast delivers another series of blows. With each blow, deep gouges are cut into the shield’s metallic face, warping its design and forcing Belen backwards. Shamefully, I linger in Belen’s shadow, unable to assist for fear of becoming a liability.
But despite Belen causing numerous cuts and burns on the beast’s skin, it refuses to flee, instead it snatches the flaming torch from my guardian’s hand and throws it into the undergrowth, extinguishing it.
With their torch lost, Belen switches to his spear and begins to jab and lunge with its iron tip. But the weapon does not incite the same fear into the beast and I can only watch as Belen is slowly overwhelmed by the spawn’s ferocity.
Forced even further back, I cast aside my hesitation and begin to gather the remnants of magic which lingers in the aether. But my actions draws the beast’s attention, causing it to fix its gaze on me. It ignores Belen’s spear thrusts which shallowly pierce its fur and braces its legs and prepares to leap.
Belen notices the beast’s change in behaviour and turns his head towards me.
Whilst shouting a warning, he thrusts downwards with his spear, piercing the beast’s paw. The entirety of Belen’s warning is drowned out by the spawn’s painful screech.
But by directing all his efforts into pinning the beast in place, Belen leaves himself vulnerable to its remaining thrashing limbs. I watch in horror as Belen’s shield is shattered by the next heavy strike which sends him crashing into a nearby tree.
I barely stop myself from rushing forward as I cry out his name, hoping for a response. Thankfully, my worst fears are not realised as a series of groans are heard from the mass of broken timber. But any further thoughts involving Belen are interrupted by the growling approach of the spawn.
Whilst sliding my feet backwards, I point my sword in the direction of the spawn, whose low pitched howls sound like mocking laughter. But as the creature prepares to charge in my direction, the shattered remnants of a spear are thrown at one of its many eyes.
“Yours fight is with me, beast!”
Belen, his once-proud frame now feeble in appearance due to his bloodied limbs and broken armour, stands and walks slowly towards the creature. Drawing his curved short sword, he spits bloodied phlegm in the direction of the beast.
“As long as I breathe, you shall not pass.”
Man and beast glare at each other, their eyes unblinking as they searched for weaknesses. Though Belen’s limbs begin to tremble due to his loss of blood, he continues to stand, his magnificent form reminding me of the splendour of the ancient heroes of old.
“Princess, though my duty was short, it was an honour. I will buy you time, now go.”
Finally the beast advances, just as Belen raises the remnants of his shattered shield. With a yell, he meets the charge with one of his own as he aims his iron blade at the beast’s opening maws.
Unwilling to waste the life that he was sacrificing, I turn and close my eyes, fighting against the growing dampness that was beginning to well within them.
“Thank you, Belen.”
With those final whispered words, I sheathe my sword and run into the trees.
I ignore the growing dampness of my eyes, just as I ignore the slapping branches and nettles which prickle against my skin. Instead, I concentrate only on running, to move my feet even as my breathing grows increasingly haggard. Soon, the sound of battle is left behind and I hear nothing more than my footsteps.
After a while, my body, unused to such exertion is forced to stop. Leaning against a tree, I empty the contents of my stomach before washing away the bitter aftertaste with a mouthful of water. Though my stomach was now empty, I could still feel the nausea growing within its depths.
As I take another mouthful of water, I allow my eyes and ears to roam. Though I hear nothing suspicious at first, I soon realised that the forest itself was eerily quiet.
Where are the birds?
Never had I known a forest to be this silent, with little to no signs of life. As the anxiety welling within me grows, I call out for the only person I wanted to see, the only person I trusted to save me from this feeling of helplessness.
I call for the Captain, yelling his name again and again, hoping for a response. But as expected, there is none. I knew it was too much to hope that he was searching close to where Belen had found me. Taking a final swig of water from now half-empty goatskin flask, I draw the minute amounts of magic which linger in the air towards me. As the aetheric wind grows in strength and swirls around me, I channel it into my limbs and will them once more to move.
My legs, which only moments ago had felt tired and encumbered, were now refreshed and I find the strength to run. As I sprint through the forest, ignoring the view which whooshes past me, I soon find myself stepping on a familiar path.
My heart leaps as I realise the campsite is near. As the feeling of hope continues to swell within my bosom, I have a single thought.
I can still save him
I part my lips, preparing to call out for the Captain when I sense a presence behind me. I turn, but I soon find myself smothered from behind. As one hand is placed atop my lips, another wraps itself around my waist and lifts me off the ground. I panic and begin to kick and bite at my unknown assailant.
“It is I. Calm yourself.”
Though their words sound like an angry growl, to me, at that moment, they were the sweetest sounds. I barely stifle the tears which were on the verge of bursting from my eyes as I turn around and wrap my arms around the Captain.
“Are you safe?
Are you uninjured?”
The Captain barrages me questions and I answer him simply with yes or no. But when he asks about Belen, I find myself unable to answer.
“Did Belen find you?”
As if sensing something behind my hesitation, he repeats the question. Biting my lips, I look down, hiding my shameful expression as I answer him truthfully.
“He found me. He saved me. But the Khaos spawn.
Please, there is still…”
The Captain stops me mid-speech, places his arm behind my back and carries me with both of his arms. He gives me no explanations, and starts running in the direction of the campsite.
“Wait, Belen! He is still fighting. We can still…”
His forceful, reprimanding tone causes me shudder. Never has he shouted at me in such a manner. But as I look up and stare into his eyes, I find not anger, but something else.
“Where there is one, there is often more. We must leave now or his sacrifice will be in vain.”