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