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Where Black Roses Bloom.

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posted on Aug, 2 2013 @ 03:15 AM
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The Prophecy of Jael

When Black Roses Bloom,
And the sun’s song ends,
When sword pierces the heart of flames,
And the great night falls,
The Gates of Heaven will be torn open,
And death will walk the land.




Epilogue

Cabrion’s Garden
Kingdom of the Damned

“I often find that I cannot forget the beauty you have forged in this place.” Elraesa whispered, her voice like elegant silk caressing his skin.

The demon’s amber-lit eyes widened at the admission, his smile forming quickly and foolishly, leaving the woman before him grinning as she spun away and continued along the garden’s winding path. Cabrion gave a soft shake of his head, a quiet refusal of the compliment she had offered for he found the vision before him, an angel in service to the Spirit of Passions, to be the far more beautiful sight.

“Forged?” he said with a growling chuckle “How would one hammer a flower?”

“In this land it would take the strength of a hammer to bring forth such flowers. A strength I see in your heart.” She whispered, walking away slowly.

The lingering scent of the Stygian Orchids, rare night-purple flowers whose scents brought visions of the dead to mortals, mingled with her own intriguing fragrance to begin gently tugging him along in her wake like a faithful pet.

As his long legs carried him down the path behind her Cabrion had one more opportunity to admire the Angeli’s form, her grace, her heavenly soul. She held a beauty beyond that expected of Passions Angels, her soft skin as white and radiant as the moon, her eyes devoid of pupil and filled with a rich emerald light that poured from the corners like streams of enchanted tears. Hair spun from the darkness spilled down her back, between the intricate tattoos of wings that graced her bared skin, like all Passions Angels she wore sheer robes cut low in the front and lower in the back, allowing any who wished to view the exquisite work of ink and divine magic.

“Will you sow them amongst the mortals?” Elraesa whispered, drawing his focus from her tattoo and up until he met her emerald gaze, all the while the soft smile on her lips were begging to be kissed, and taunting him at the same time. It seems she asked the question more then once.

“No, that would break the treaty.” Cabrion answered hesitantly.

Elraesa merely snorted “The treaty” before turning and continuing in her slow walk through his garden, eyes drinking in the beauty that she had in small part helped inspire.

“Not pleased by your service?” he offered teasingly, pushing back his growing doubts.

“What if I were to tell you that soon the treaty would mean nothing?” Elraesa said teasingly, the flower petals rolling slowly over her lips as they curled in a knowing smile. “Would you not wish to see your creations blessing the nights across all of Shaethe?

“No, I would not” Cabrion answered honestly, his eyes narrowing as he began to wonder what the angel before him now had truly seen in him when they had first met. “Is that your reason for agreeing to meet me here? To test my will?”

“I am drawn to those whose passion calls to me, as you well know.” Elraesa repilied tersely, eyes blazing jade fire.

“Tell me what you see.” Cabrion whispered.

“What I see?” Elraesa asked, her head tilting in a curious gesture.

“In me, when you look at my demon form.” Cabrion said softly, the growl inherent to his nature growing more defined with each word.

“Ah, your cursed skin?” the angel could not help but tease.

“Yes.” Cabrion growled harshly, no longer hiding his heritage, his amber eyes burning.

Like all demons, all traitors, Cabrion had been branded for his actions in the Fall. Skin that had once been much like her own was now coated in thick, though admittedly soft, black fur. His face, once handsome by all accounts, was now more animal then man while his eyes held only a glimmer of his former angelic nature and intelligence. Fangs, claws, he even had a tail hidden beneath the dark black robes embroidered with crimson thorn vines that he always wore.

And he was one of the lucky one’s.

“A wolf” she said finally “I would say you look like a wolf.”

Cabrion could only chuckle “So I am, at best, a beast. Mighty Cabrion, once Knight Commander in the Angeli Order is now but another dog.”

Elraesa shook her head sadly, staring at the orchid he had given her as she spoke in that soft silken voice “Five hundred years is a long time to hold on to such anger. The Queen’s final curse bid your bodies only to be a true reflection of your souls.”

“Has it truly been that long?” he whispered, ignoring the truth and clinging to his anger.

“Any word from the King?” Elraesa teased, a half smile on her lips.

“Nothing. What of the Queen?” Cabrion asked quietly, staring deep into the emerald pools of her eyes.

“She waits in silence and dreams, as always.” Elraesa answered without hesitation.

“Then I am still damned.” He growled, looking away towards the well-ordered flowers beds and blossoming fruit trees.

“Only if you still wish to be..” her voice growing fainter as the passion within began to dim beneath his animal instincts, forcing his burning gaze back to the woman who had been his only companion for so very long. “Even the humans have found a way to salvation in these dark and lonely times.”

A soft buzz drew his gaze from her precious beauty to the orchids he had created, a sigh parting his lips as the vicious insect clinging to it began to drink its nectar. “And here I had hoped for butterflies, perhaps even a few bees.”

The Creteos may have once been a dragonfly; the long tapered form and iridescent wings would certainly fit, but like so many thing, like his flowers, like himself, the insect wasn’t what it used to be.

For one, he was fairly certain a dragonfly never burrowed into mortal flesh to lay eggs, which hatched, and were nourished, within the chambers of the heart.

“Heart Breakers.” The Angeli whispered. “How fitting.”

Cabrion didn’t need to watch her form shift into mist before blowing away on a warm wind to know that she was gone, that his passion had fled in the face of his anger and self-loathing.

Alone in the ever-night of his gardens, a darkness that held much of the land called the Kingdom of the Damned forever in its thrall, Cabrion lifted his head towards the sky and howled out his pain to a moon that would not shine.



Chapter One

The Woods and Hills of Damaran
Provinces of Heaven

"It was her smile, that sweet and tempting grin that blossomed upon her face whenever there was mischief to be had." Aros thought, his legs aching as he tried to mimic the endless grace his companion possessed, her long legs and lithe form as swift as a dark jungle cat.

He figured that had to be the reason he was chasing her up a steep hill, despite the seemingly boundless energy she possessed, in this exhausting run across the damp and rough countryside. Knowing he couldn't keep up with her, he never could catch Saerina, Aros instead took a much needed break after reaching the top of the winding trail and let his tired legs rest while he drifted between the towering pines. The thin lines of trees gave way soon to the sheer edges of the hill and its overlook of the valley below. There, in a clearing surrounded by tended farmlands, lay the small town of Damaran, the only place had ever known. There lived his friends, his neighbors, and his family.

"Funny how a smile can cause so much pain." He whispered to the flowing winds as memories of his father's punishments came to mind, the old man's voice whispering soft wisdoms after the suffering, wisdoms that had apparently yet to sink in.

"A woman's smile can lead a man straight to hell, grinning like a fool the whole journey." His father had last offered after a rough punishment.

A punishment that Aros knew, in retrospect, was well deserved. He and Saerina had, after all, snitched a few of Jylan's horses and ridden in the most dangerous way possible down the narrow road leading through Damaran; that method of riding being the soft placement of the right foot on the saddle, the gentle pressure of the left foot on the rear and, most importantly, maintaining a tight grip of the leather reins.

He had managed the feat for a minute, at best. Saerina had done it for five.

So, Aros decided, his dad had probably been justified in punching him despite that the blow left him seeing little lights dancing beyond the black fog that quickly swallowed his world.

As his dad had said. "Thats parenting."

The thought brought a smile to Aros's lips as the wind kicked up and pulled strands of his dark hair from the leather thong binding it behind his neck. Another memory followed, this one later when he regained consciousness. He had asked his dad what to do when a woman's smile is so powerful that it can lead you in such a way.

His dad had just sighed, went to the cupboard and pulled down a corked bottle of his favorite Black Oak Whiskey with two glasses. These he set on the table, and after bidding his son to sit and pouring him drink offered the only wisdom he could on the matter.

"Make sure you marry her and start drinking, cause that girl is gonna send you to your grave with a smile." His dad had said before bidding him a toast and downing his glass.

Aros sat in silence a few moments longer, sapphire eyes tracing the flight of hawks in hunt or studying the indecipherable language of the curling smoke slipping from the hearths of many houses. The soft brushing of leaves drew him from his thoughts, his smile growing bolder as Saerina slipped towards him with all the stealth she possessed.

"Ghost" he whispered, the usual signal that she had been spotted. Her sigh, though as soft as the brushing of leaves moment before, was enough to let him know he had won the game once more.

"Giving up our chase so soon?" Saerina asked playfully as she came to stand beside him and look out over the valley. His gaze, naturally, drew from the view beyond to the view before him and as ever he found the sight of her far more pleasing. Her dark brown skin gleamed gently, and he knew from her countless innocent gestures that the soft caress of Saerina's skin and its lingering scent were as intoxicating to recall as they were to experience. The gleam in her emerald eyes was akin to his own, though far more playful and wild then the sharp blue of Aros's eyes, and often framed by the untamed bounty of her raven's black hair.

"I haven't quit on you yet" he responded, a smirk on his lips as he found her eyes leaving the valley view to meet his own.

"No you haven't" she said with a smirk.

"So, are you going to tell me what this "little run" as you put it, is really all about?" Aros said, hoping the serious light in his eyes would for once draw an easy answer from his mischievous companion.

"I need my offering." Saerina said with a little laugh, as if it were obvious to anyone "Tomorrow is Judgment Day after all."

"You’re going to be judged?" Aros asked, though he deeply desired to start screaming.

"Yes." She said, more gently, offering him a rare apologetic look before spinning away and heading back towards the tree line.

"Wait" he growled, turning and running to catch up with her "Where you planning on telling me?" he grumbled when finally moving alongside her.

"I just did" she said, offering faint smile, her eyes slowly sweeping the forest floor, then the trees and hills.

"I meant before now, you couldn't have told me sooner then this?" he said, hoping his desire to scream would slip away soon.

"I…i knew what you would say." she whispered, stopping and turning to meet his eyes. "Come with me Aros, come to the Judgment."

"No!" Now Aros was yelling. "You know i can't go through that, i won't!"

"Aros, please." Saerina said gently "I know you can, if you wanted to, they would be lucky to have you."

"No Saerina!" he yelled, his fists clenching rhythmically as his heart hammered "I can't"

"Your Mother chose to be judged." she whispered, almost defensively, though the pain in her eyes spoke of how much it hurt for her to bring that up.

"That’s not fair!" Aros yelled louder, then pausing and fighting to breathe he let his anger drown in the pain of the memories she had evoked "You know how hard that was on my dad, how hard it was on me."

"Yes, but you were only a child then. You know what it means to be judged now." Saerina said confidently "You would make an excellent Voice, you’re certainly smart enough. You could even be a Hand!!" she finished with excitement.

"I don't want to be a Hand, or a Voice, or any other tool of the Angeli." Aros said bitterly, turning his back on Saerina and staring at the valley through the tree line "I don't want to die for their war."

"They protected us from the Baelful, gave us shelter in their lands. Don’t we owe them something for our freedom, for our lives?" Saerina asked.

She didn't wait for the answer, quickly turning her back to him and resuming the search.

Finally, Aros sighed and whispered, "What kind of offering do you need to take?"

Saerina paused in her search, hiding her smile as she answered just as softly "I don't know exactly, i am supposed to trust my instinct. I am supposed to have faith i made the right choice."

Aros shook his head and muttered "Typical angels."

"If i am to be a Hand, then you are going to have to learn to accept the Angels. I will be in their service, after all, and might not take kindly to you talking in such a tone." Saerina said, her voice harder and more intimidating then Aros had ever heard. So strange was that tone of voice coming from her lips that Aros turned, needing to see her eyes, and found once more the pure humor burning in them.

Humor gained at his expense.

"I will have to spank you if you do." Saerina finished with a wink, biting her lower lip for a moment before she spun away in a veil of dark tresses and ran off towards the higher trails, her laughter like the joyous singing of birds.

The thought was enough reason for Aros to hang back a moment and calm himself down once more.

Then the chase was on.



He found Saerina further up the trail than he expected, crouching against some rocks and staring intently at the mouth of a cave. His quiet steps carried him across the dirt and stone so effortlessly that Saerina jumped and let out a cute little squeal when he whispered “Ghost” in her ear.

“Don’t do that!” she growled, slapping him playfully before turning her attention back to the cave.

“Don’t even think about it” he countered, knowing Saerina would drag him into every cave she could find if it meant getting her offering. Panicking as that smile spread across her face, Aros searched the surrounding area for something, anything that would distract Saerina and suit as an offering.

Then he noticed the small group of wild rose bushes.

“How about those?” Aros asked, nudging her with his elbow and motioning to the bushes that just happened to lay in the opposite direction of the cave. Walking to the bush and plucking a few of the budding flowers he came back to Saerina, certain that he was blushing as he held out the bouquet.

She shook her head.

“No, those are not very suiting of a Hand now are they?” Saerina asked

“Then how about simply as a gift?” Aros growled, hoping to regain his dignity.

“A gift?” Saerina said curiously, then her eyes widened as she stammered “Oh yes a gift! Of course, thank you Aros.”

Taking the flowers and stroking their petals she whispered softly “They are very beautiful. I’ve never seen black roses before.”

“They suit you.” Aros said honestly.

“Oh?” she said with a grin.

“Mmmm beautiful, deadly, and impossible to touch without getting hurt.” He said softly, leaving himself wondering if that was a compliment or insult.

Either way Saerina seemed not to notice, nor said anything if she did, instead she quietly stroked the soft petals of the flowers and came to her feet. Each step was slow, tentative, and in moments she was standing before Aros with his heart hammering so loud he was certain Saerina could hear it.

Again she said nothing, merely smiled and then placed a soft kiss on his lips. He didn’t need to be told to wrap his arms around her and pull that dark temptation closer. Didn’t pause in that kiss or steal its growing passion when the thorns from the roses pricked into his hands and let thin streams of blood spill over his skin.




The sunrise was a glorious thing.

Aros just wished he could have shared it with Saerina.

He had awoken shortly before the dawn to a chill wind, an empty sensation beside him, and a single black rose. Thinking, hoping perhaps, that she had merely gone out before the dawn to find her offering he had waited until the sun began to warm the world around him and glare bright in his early morning eyes. A part of him still wanted to run through the dying pre-dawn mists with reckless abandon, singing a song of love like the fluttering birds. A part of him wanted to rage and roar at his lover’s silent betrayal, her midnight rejection.

The prick of a black rose thorn reminded him of such folly, and the pleasures associated with that pain faded slightly, enough to let him wonder for the first time if his mother, and his lover, had made the right choices. Or, perhaps more frightening, had he made a wrong choice in not accepting Saerina’s offering, had he failed somehow in not embracing the idea simply because it had slipped from her perfect lips??

His slow walk back to town gave him time to think, and though he wanted to focus on Saerina his mind kept drawing him back to his mother and her smile. He could almost recall the joy of his mother’s presence before those feelings began to pale against the dim memories of the long days afterward.

Each morning, mornings much like the one through which he now wandered, he had woken up with the single hope of her return. Every morning the disappointment and the pain settled in again. Aros had grown numb to that pain, or kept telling himself that at least, and as he grew older the boy found many mornings would pass without a single thought of her passing through his mind, or stinging his heart.

In the fields, at his father’s side in the shop, doing whatever he could to make things a little easier for them both, Aros had toiled harder then he thought possible. Years melted away, he found friends and neighbors, learned the ways of a sword and a horse. One night beneath a blessed moon Aros had even earned his first kiss after killing a wild pig that had been chasing some smaller children through the woods.
His life had been pleasant, safe.

Only now he was reminded once more of the cost of that safety, the price of his own cherished memories and secret pains. His mother had walked into that temple and never returned not because that was the way of judgment, or because she had found a greater purpose as a Hand or Voice. His mother had heard the same tales that Saerina had heard, she had sat around the same protective fires and listened to elders speak of days before such peace. Days after the Fall, when the world of men spiraled into chaos and savagery, when the prayers of the dying and the laughter of the damned brought forth the Angeli and the Bael.

Deep down, whether Aros came to realize that what his mother had sacrificed she had given out of love.

Perhaps love was the answer.

Clutching the black rose tighter, and feeling his heart soar, Aros began running hard towards down, and the temple.

Judgment Day had come.




posted on Aug, 12 2013 @ 09:26 PM
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Dawn’s early light found Saerina at the edge of her family farm, the bright glow of candles signaling the start of another day. Waiting carefully in the shadows, knowing her father’s morning routine perfectly, the young girl waited until he went out to check the animals in the barn before making her final rush to the door.

Getting inside silently was easy, and her graceful steps carried Saerina not towards her room where she should have been found at such an hour. Instead, clutching her roses close, Saerina forced her long legs to carry her to the edge of her mother’s cooking table before laying the flowers gently on its surface.

“Good morning dear” her mother, Eryiana, said in her gentle sing-song manner before the woman’s soft blue eyes fell upon the black roses.

“Oh my aren’t those lovely. A gift from a special friend perhaps?” Her mother teased, throwing a not so subtle wink Saerina’s way.

“Yes, from Aros” she whispered, fighting the blush as the mere mention of his name brought the subtle scent of his skin wafting up from her own. Saerina lifted her guilty eyes to her mother, only to find the woman focusing on the pile of potatoes, peppers and onions she was rhythmically slicing into smaller and smaller pieces for their morning meal.

“Oh, such a good boy. So like his mother.” Eryiana whispered, shaking her head sadly as she gathered up the potatoes she had been slicing and put them into a smooth stone bowl before moving on to the next.

The comparison caught her daughter off guard, forcing Saerina to stare long and hard at Eryiana as she worked, humming a soft tune to keep the rhythm of her cooking. It took only a second for Saerina to find the youthful beauty Eryiana had once possessed, still possessed, beauty so akin to her own. Though her mother’s eyes were a softer blue, and gentled by the joys and pain of her experiences, Saerina had no doubt in her mind that in days past the woman now happily cutting vegetables was as wild as her daughter ever was. Perhaps even a little more so.

“I forget at times that you and his mom were so close.” Saerina said in that same gentle voice, another stone of regret weighing on the young girls burdened heart.

Unable to resist it any longer, needing her mother to know the truth, Saerina blurted out the things she needed her mother to hear before leaving.

“I love you so much mom, and dad, and this house. I am so grateful, so very grateful to both of you but…but” Saerina said, her voice rising in pitch as the words came faster and faster. Eryiana frowned as she began speaking, cupping the peppers in her gentle hands and adding them to the bowl before moving on to the onions.

“But today you will be Judged” Eryiana said softly, a touch of regret evident in her voice, face cast down to veil the woman’s beauty behind a black and silver veil. Her pace doubled.

“Yes. Today I will be Judged. I have to do this mom, for you, for me, for..” she let the last part go unsaid. Saerina couldn’t talk about him yet, not when she could still smell him on her skin. Shaking her head gently Eryiana added the last of the vegetables to the bowl before taking it towards the skin.

“Saerina…i….” her mom began before the door opened.

“Hello girls.” Her father, Niralin said cheerfully, giving his daughter a wink before slipping up behind his wife and curling his arms about her.

The thin shirt he wore did little protect him form the morning chill, but like Saerina he had never found such sensations unpleasant. She had his strong heart, she knew, and his eyes, his warm humor and his fearlessness. Yes, her proud father would be walking beside Saerina all the long days of her life. That much she could still hold onto; had to hold onto.

Saerina wasn’t sure how Eryiana did it, and at times she was certain it was only the calming presence of her father, but her mom managed to smile and hold the girl’s secret a little longer.

“Good morning my love” Eryiana whispered, still gazing into the stone bowl with its vegetables. “Go get cleaned up and ill get breakfast started.”

“Mmmm sounds good.” Her father said softly, offering his wife a slow kiss before staring at the onion and offering Eryiana his often goofy smile “Want man smash onion for making woman cry?”

Eryiana, and Saerina, couldn’t help but grin at the dumb old joke before yelling “GO” at him in unison. An order few men would be foolish enough to resist. He was gone in moments.

“He is going to miss you fiercely you know, he may even chase you down. Judged or not.” Eryiana promised when her gaze met Saerina’s once more.

“I know, and I will you both just as fiercely, but I feel I have to do this.” Saerina said gently, biting her lower lip before forcing a bit more courage into her heart “Before I go, I need something from you.”

Eryiana let slip a gentle sigh for innocence gone by and the young girl she ahd lost before nodding “What do you need Saerina?”

Staring at the flowers, Saerina couldn’t help but smile. “I want you to help me make one of the recipes Grandma used to brew.”

“Red Rose’s Lament?” Eryiana asked skeptically, eyeing the flowers.

“Black Rose Wine” Saerina whispered, the smirk on her lips making Eryiana laugh and shake her head

“Only you girl, would bring a potent aphrodisiac meant for spiritual healing to a Judgment.” Her mother said with a breathless whisper as her laughter died.

Saerina just shrugged as her mom continued shaking her head, muttering, “Foolish angels don’t know what they are in for I tell you.”

“Alright, alright. Let me finish breakfast and get your Father working on his day then we will make your wine.” Eryiana consented.

“Let me help” Saerina offered, and so rare was that offering that her mother could not help but step aside and draw her daughter close.

As much laughter as tears ended up in the eggs, vegetables and bacon they served to her father. Who, though confused by their emotional state, accepted it all as one of the peculiarities of woman and ate his breakfast happily.

They let him have his meal before Saerina broke his heart.




Beyond the edges of town, along a slowly winding road that led into the well-tended gardens of the Temple, lay the Eyes of Jael. The temple, though built with graceful curving lines and layered with intricate and beautiful carvings, had an ominous presence that caused many pilgrims to question their motives and their faith in approaching such a hallowed place. For nearly a century the temple had stood as a symbol of protection and peace. It was a living sanctuary for all those seeking refuge from the horrors of the mortal world after the Fall, a place of solitude where the wounded could mend body and soul.

It was also, for some, the gateway to damnation.

Or so the stories said, none who had sought Judgment returned from their calling and many noble sacrifices of kin and kind had become but distant and distorted tales of the world beyond the safety of Heaven.

While Aros could believe, in some ways, that a few who came to this place might be seeking their own doom he also knew that the beauty of the grounds was meant to reflect the true path that those who sought Judgment followed. In every blossoming Angel’s Kiss he saw the rich and glorious power of the Sun Goddess Jael, the subtle beauty of the flower’s tear-shaped, iridescent petals sparkling in the summer breeze had moved more then one poet and dreamer to tears.

The trailing fronds of a Heaven’s Willow danced along the cobbled path that stood as boundary between the people’s land and the holy ground of the temple. Here, kneeling beyond low brick walls and glimpsed through black iron trellises worked the many monks of the temple. Devout priests who spent their lives in religious study, vocal training and meditation to help connect with their deity, who has ever been a goddess of wisdom. In time, and with faith, the monks could create life from anything and everything they desired.

Such is the power of the sun, and such is the power of her chosen.

“The Voices of Jael” he said gently, whispering it like a promise, or a threat.

His rose, he thought sadly while studying its pure black petals, might not have been the best choice. With a shrug he started along the winding cobbled path, letting the tranquil scents and sounds of the gardens calm his mind and ease his spirit. At its end stood the Temple proper. Its ornately carved Brightwood doors an artistic accomplishment envied by many of the surrounding provinces for its exquisite depiction of the final battle between Jael and Saed.

As he stared at the door, eyes tracing the subtle curves and intricate details, his mind teased him for his cowardice in not simply knocking or even boldly entering the ancient temple. A spark of something he couldn’t call gold caught his eye, then another, the light pouring in streams across the wooden door before gathering in the goddess Jael’s eyes.

Unable to look away, he stared straight into the golden light as it washed over him in a wave of warmth and peace.

He wasn’t sure when he closed his eyes, or if the glow had simply blinded him, but the next moment he was aware of a pure and unending darkness swirling all around him.

“What?” he whispered, half in surprise and half in fear. Had he been damned? His mind began to chatter, listing all his various sins in slow and meticulous order.

“Well wake up boy!” the voice growled “And you will find out What?!”

Shaking his head and forcing his aching eyes to slowly open, Aros peered up at the bearded face of a man he had never met. A man, his mind quickly corrected, with two great wings arching up from his back.

“Welcome to the Hand’s boy!” The gruff man roared before offering a thick, calloused hand. Aros let the man pull him roughly to his feet, coughing as the man then gave his back a few hard slaps while laughing heartily.

“The wave makes everyone dizzy, so it ain’t uncommon to be meeting our new recruits on their backsides!” the man laughed hard, perhaps harder then he needed to, slapping the heavy dust from Aros’s back until the mortal pulled away.

“The Hand?” he whispered in surprise, his head picking up immediately as eyes widened and quickly searched for Saerina.

“Where you from boy?” the man asked, seeing his interest change.

“Damaran.” Aros whispered automatically, eyes searching the growing group of people that were even now ‘arriving’ with Cloud Portal spells from every place of judgment in the Provinces of Heaven.

“Never heard of it.” The man said with a shrug, scratching his beard “But there be lots of human communities out there, more every year. My name’s Blok.”

“Blok?” Aros mouthed before turning his attention back to the Angeli who grinned at him through his beard and finished “Well, my nickname anyway. Full name is a bit of a mouthful for the fresh meat.”

Aros simply tilted his head in confusion “So, Blok?”

Blok shrugged before pointing at his forehead “I break em with this.”

“Oh” Aros said as more then one thing about Blok began to make sense.

The man smiled, then bent over and picked up the black rose before handing it to Aros. The Angeli’s beard, sadly, didn’t hide his knowing smile very well.

“Farewell gift from your girl?” the Angel said

“Sort of” Aros replied, feeling a bit embarrassed as he whispered “My offering actually.”

The Angeli’s eyes widened, his smile fading a bit as he gave Aros a more serious look “And it got you here?”

“Yes?” Aros said tentatively.

“Huh. Ya know I don’t think I have ever heard of a Hand with a flower as an offering.” Blok decided after a few moments of thought. “Wonder what ol’ steel will think of this.”

Aros didn’t like the sound of that. “Old steel?”

Blok nodded “Headmaster here, oversees a lot of the training.”

“Great.” Aros whispered, picturing a winged and divinely powered version of his father. His dad had thought the offering a joke too. Whatever pain crossed his features seemed to draw Blok’s attention for a few quiet moments, then with a soft pat on the shoulder the Angeli slipped off into the crowd.

Aros managed a half-hearted nod to whatever consolation the angel offered, the rose barely clinging to his fingers as he followed sullenly a few moments later.

He tried to avoid running into people, some of whom were clutching offerings that made Aros want to keep a wide berth for fear of being burned, poisoned or frozen for ages. Others held things ever more esoteric, but all of obvious design. Death, it seemed, was of prime importance to the Hand, for all the offerings that Aros saw could dispense it freely.

“Good thinking boyo” he whispered to himself, hearing his father’s voice echoing in his head “Gone and made yourself the fool, and it ain’t even worth smiling over cause she ain’t here.”

A line was forming ahead of him, nervous recruits stepping forward in quiet order. Aros joined them, unsure of what else to do expect push things ahead and hope he didn’t end up the mockery of the camp. For a camp, he was beginning to realize, is exactly what it was. He could see no buildings save a narrow but strongly built tower of some sort. Certainly too small to house the fifty plus humans and Angeli he could see mingling on the grounds. Quietly surveying the field of tents spread out around the tower, letting the rhythm of the line carry him towards its end, Aros was trying to keep his eyes open for her when a large fire directly before him began to capture his interest.

“Were burning them?” he whispered to himself, catching the attention of the person in front of him.

The young woman turned, narrowed her eyes and openly scoffed “Fire is the element of Jael, how else would we give her our offerings?”

Aros bit his lip and avoided her gaze. He had never been active with his communities’ church. The priests, though likable enough, seemed so distant from the pains and realities of his life that he had never felt any way of connecting with them, or their goddess. Though he wanted to blame his mother’s decision to leave, he knew deep down that his father had a lot to do with it. Openly mocking the Angeli and their ‘sleeping queen’ in his home, often in the presence of Aros, had left the boy with a heavy distrust for the Angels who made themselves seem so perfect and powerful.

The woman before him took a few steps ahead, the voice of a striking Angeli female standing just to the side of the flames pulling Aros from his thoughts as she gave her instruction to the recruits.

“Throw your offerings into the pyre and then move on to your field tests!” the Angeli yelled sternly.

One recruit, Aros noticed with amusement, had chosen to offer a suit of armor. The clanking of metal, the grunting of the recruit were all just noise and fury that drew the eye to the man stripping down to his breeches and angrily thrusting his armor into the great pyre.

Aros tossed his rose and moved on.

More people passed behind him, the group gathered and filled until the last offering had been made. Then, the Angeli female who had been ordering the recruits at the pyre, walked before the gathering and waited as her mere presence and tight amber eyes silenced the crowd. Twilight gripped the landscape around them, the Burning Line that lay many miles away blazing as the night came on, the source of endless light casting weird shadows towards the camp.

“My name is Captain Arenta. I hold the honor of being a Hand of Jael, and the joy of beating some of you into a shape fit to serve our almighty goddess.” The proud Angeli spoke, her voice amplified by divine will so that all felt her presence.

Not that many of the male recruits were having a hard time paying attention to her. Even a few of the women, Aros glimpsed, were grinning in a strange way as they watched the captain. Beauty, Aros was beginning to notice, seemed to be a common trait amongst the Angeli. He had expected it, sort of, but the sheer perfection of the Captain’s form was still distracting.

The Angeli had skin the color of hazelnuts and eyes like almonds, her dark black hair dancing in the aura of her divine power. Her armor, woven lines of golden chain, was cut to fit the warrior perfectly, to move with her body and protect her most vital areas. Like the other armored Angeli he saw moving slowly about the camp, eyeing recruits or performing their other duties, the Captain’s armor was also designed to accommodate the glorious light chocolate wings that flowed up above her shoulders.

“At dawn the field tests begin” Captain Arenta’s voice called, drawing Aros from his thoughts and bringing more then one males attention back from fantasy “you will be provided a padded weapon that best suits your skills and previous experiences. After that you will be divided into two teams that will face off in mock combat, those left standing will be considered the victors.”

Aros could feel the tension growing among the crowd as the recruits began murmuring amongst themselves. The Captain, familiar with the routine, kept on speaking above the increasing noise.

“The purpose of this test is merely assess your current abilities and skills, neither victor nor loser will receive any special treatment from this test.” The Angeli finished.

Aros doubted that, so did most of the people he saw around him. Oh, he believed that they wouldn’t kick out the losers, but his eyes swept over the crowd like many others wondering just who would fall and who wouldn’t and what would come of that.

A moment passed as the Captain spoke quietly with another Angeli in armor, then with a nod turned her attention back to the crowd and smiled a grim smile.

“Those to my left, go with Master Claes. Those on my right, follow me.” She called out, then began moving off to the right amidst a swell of humans murmuring and chatting excitedly.

Aros followed her quietly, still considering the competition. Only now it was those still in his team that he was sizing up, and cutting off. It startled him to realize it, even scared him a little that he was willingly taking down people on his team out of an imagined need for victory.

Trying to push back his hesitation, and his fear, he settled into another line as the recruits filed forward and chose a padded training weapon for the coming battle. When his turn came, Aros selected a thin, slightly curved sword reminiscent of the blade his father had trained him with. As with many of the human communities that had found shelter in the Provinces of Heaven after the Fall, the people were largely responsible for the safety of their own homes against the rare rogue demons that managed to cross into their territory.

And like most, Aros had slain a few of the weaker demons. Twisted creatures that might have once been squirrels, rabbits or deer. He had taken no real pleasure in it, but his father had insisted. As the years passed and the few threats that did arise were quelled, he found his presence based more on Saerina’s involvement in the local guard then his own.

He had never known combat, not like this.

The human recruits seemed tentative and ill at ease even with weapons they had held most of their lives. The few Angeli on their side, however, showed no fear and had quickly separated themselves into a smaller group that was locked in heated conversation.

Three of the angels separated from their brethren and returned, leaving Aros less curious about what had transpired then he was secure in the added backup. Like all of their kind, the Angeli possessed innate divine powers, a talent they called magic. As the other, larger group of angels tightened their ranks and began to set some sort of plan it occurred to Aros that it might help to have one as well.

A few of the other humans had similar ideas, but Aros approached the rogue Angeli first and said openly “Think they split the angels evenly?”

A moment of silence passed as the group exchanged looks, then their apparent leader nodded “We know they have, the only question left to us is how will they distribute their own angels amongst the rest of their forces, if they do at all?

Aros thought for a few minutes then shrugged as he motioned to the distant group of angels “Like that?”

The leader nodded her agreement, and then offered a slender golden hand “Pherysa Lintil of the Northern City, and my brothers Hofaen and Burindel.”

Aros shook it, feeling the tempered strength the angel was holding back just to keep from crushing his bones. “Aros Kai, Damaran.”

“That’s near South City correct? The City of Sceptres?” the younger Hofaen asked.

“Yes, South City.” Aros said in a whisper, watching the angel with a quiet and distant look in his eyes.

The Angeli brothers exchanged looks before Hofaen offered, though hesitantly “If I have offended..”

Aros snapped back, shook his head, and then gave the angels a smile “Have you ever been to South City?”

As one they shook their heads.

“I went once, my dad took me after my mom….” Aros trailed off for a moment, gave a slight cough to cover the pause then continued “I saw these kids playing this game while I was there….”

“A game?” Pherysa asked, but Aros had already turned and was studying the landscape the Angeli had laid out for their training grounds.

Beyond the entrance where Aros could still glimpse the fires burning their offerings, the camp had split around what he was beginning to see was a circular arena with them based one side and their opponents on the other. Between them the angels had used their divine power to reshape the earth, creating great mounds of rock and sand, as well as a virtual forest of tree like stones.

“I think the human is scared.” One of the brother’s whispered, but Aros didn’t turn, he didn’t have to. The next voice he heard was Pherysa.

“No, the human has a plan.” The angel whispered confidently to her brothers.



 
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