The Small Group Crouched Around the Fire...

February 7, 2008
By Ian Chivers, Shoreline, WA

The small group crouched around the fire, the soft wind stirring their hair and cloaks as Aethis played a small ceramic flute. The lilting music drifted over the plains, echoing and haunting. On the barren tracks between the cities, sound carried a great distance, as did the wind’s eerie whistle. Faoran sighed and shifted, the tip of his sheath drawing a line in the bare dirt. Eldamar pushed her staff back away from the flames. They had been living off the vast, trackless wasteland that occupied the center of Arin, exiled by the city-states on each side. Supplies were running low, but the eight mercenaries held out hope for a turn of fate.

Fate waited for them, staring down from another plane. Two angels looked down on the spot of burning orange on the plane beneath them. Lyalis wore a deep red tunic with long slashes in the back to allow passage for his pitch black wings and loose black pants. His black sword hung loosely in his grasp, its bare blade glistening in the light from the gates behind him. Arendra was clothed in a long white cloak over a set of black robes. His hair fell well past his shoulders, and a white lance was balanced against his knee.
A member of the Holy Guard stood on the wall of the city behind the pair, a bow raised. “Move, exiles,” he said softly. In the utter silence, his voice boomed like a horn call. The angels looked back at the member of the Guard and followed his instructions. They started down the path that led away from the Heaven of the Astral Plane, knowing that they would never come back. The black that they wore, the black on Lyalis’ sword… they all told the tale of the pair’s exile. Both knew of the mounting danger to the Middle Planes as their god grew tired.
Phanthes, the ruler of Heaven, was growing weary of maintaining the Middle Planes. He wanted a fresh start, and was preparing to annihilate the life that flourished below them. This truth was hidden from everyone, including the angels that formed his choir, his companions, and his guard. Lyalis and Arendra had felt that something was wrong and had begun to question the motives and sanity of Phanthes. He found out, and the two were powerless to resist his displeasure. They were banished from Heaven, and were now to be thrust out of Heaven permanently.
As they descended the long golden staircase that marked the end of the Astral Plane, Arendra growled low in his throat. “So we find the humans. What then? Eight humans and two renegade angels can’t stand up to the might of Heaven!” Lyalis, a quiet angel, said nothing.
Below, on the Middle Planes, things were stirring. A storm was begin to blow on the wasteland the housed the small mercenary band. Faoran gathered the group urgently and sent them racing away from their campsite. On the wastes, a storm could be deadly. There was no shelter, and the elements were battering. The best hope was to try and outrun it, or stumble across some far-flung shelter.
As the eight fled, Lyalis and Arendra stepped down, the manifestation of the two angels stirring the air. They saw the fleeing mercenaries and looked at each other. They hurried out of the belly of the rolling clouds and set off, winging across the plains after the mercenaries. The beat of their wings whipped the air into a frenzy, though the angels paid it no mind. The winds of the Middle Planes obeyed them, as did the other elements.
Faoran looked over his shoulder and too in the glowing black heart of the storm. It seemed to rise up into the heavens and vanish. It wasn’t a good omen. There wasn’t any shelter nearby, so they would have to outrun the storm. But in his heart of hearts, Faoran knew that they wouldn’t escape. It was a supernatural storm, he knew, and it would catch them. He gasped as two black shadows detached themselves from the heart of the storm and came after them. The beats of two pairs of wings shook the air and rattled Faoran to his core. Eldamar lost her footing and fell hard on the packed ground. Faoran turned back to grab her, but the beings were on them like lightning. A winged being garbed in black and red stood in front of them, a white shield emanating from his arms, blocking the mercenaries’ progress forward. The other avian being descended behind them and lifted Eldamar to her feet.
Arendra saw one of the women fall as she ran. Lyalis saw it too and tucked his wings to his body. The silent angel landed in front of the eight, extending a holy shield from his arms. Arendra descended more slowly, touching down gently and lifting the woman to her feet. Seven members of the group backed into a circle, their leader drawing his sword. Arendra felt a sudden weight on his back, and then a knife pressed to his throat. He spun, and a lithe figure dropped off of him. Arendra felt a thin blade enter his chest. His spear spun through the air to meet his attacker, but it was met by a wooden staff. The staff expertly rolled around the haft of his lance and cracked him on the head. As he spun his lance back into a guard position, the rapier slid into him again.
He lifted off the ground and looked around. A man in dark green was weaving through the fight with a knife in hand. Two women stood below Arendra, one with a rapier and the other with the offending staff. Lyalis’ shield was down, and he was defending himself from two swordsmen that danced around him, their blades flashing a little too fast for the other angel to keep up with. He was covered with numerous small wounds, mostly on his arms. A bowman crouched at the edge of the fight, an arrow nocked. Standing resolutely beside him stood his guard, a tall man wielding a long lance, similar to Arendra’s.
An arrow hissed through the air, and Arendra snapped his lance up in a tight spin in an effort to deflect the arrow. He missed, and the barbed shaft sank into his wing. He howled in pain, and dropped from the sky.
Hellfire! Arendra thought. They’re stronger than we counted on. Realizing that, unlikely though it was, they were going to lose this fight, Arendra and Lyalis sank into the rift between the Astral Plane and the Middle Planes.
* * * *
Faoran drew his sword as the angel set Eldamar back on her feet. Rijik had already slipped away, and was creeping up behind the angel with the dangerous-looking lance. Rijik leaped from the shadows, landing on the angel’s back and pressing his knife to the angel’s throat. Fendesu seized her chance, dropping into a low and well-executed lunge. Her rapier pierced the angel’s back, but the angel didn’t fall. He turned, his spear whistling through the air above Fendesu’s head. Eldamar jumped into the fight, squaring off and throwing her staff in the way of the deadly lance. Narouk moved to one side and strung his bow. Shijif stood beside him, guarding him with his swift lance. The angel holding the shield in place looked calm and confident as he watched the progression of the battle, until Eldamar’s staff nearly split the angel’s skull and Fendesu’s rapier pierced him again. As one, Faoran and Yansec turned, lifting their swords. They attacked the second angel, who dropped his shield and drew his sword with inhuman speed.
They whirled around him, their swords flashing in mirror image patterns of each other. The angel was fast and strong, but he only had one sword, and he couldn’t keep up. Faoran nicked his arm, and the angel winced. Yansec darted in, his sword flashing across the angel’s bicep. The angel tossed his sword to his other hand and continued the fight.
There was a hissing noise and a howl of pain. Faoran glanced over and saw the angel dropping from the air. He shimmered and faded slightly. He was still visible, but he seemed insubstantial. Fendesu drove her rapier forward again, but it simply passed through the angel. The avian that was locked in combat with Yansec drew back and faded similarly. The two laughed, and sprang back into the fight. With renewed vigor, the two angels spun their weapons in deadly arcs, though the group always managed to parry the blows at the last second, or the blows seemed to miss. The angels became nothing but blurs of motion as they ringed the group in. Fire danced at the edges of their vision, the ground shook, and the winds stirred. The angels came to a halt, having backed the group into a circle. Fire danced in a ring around Faoran and the others. With a hiss, the angels stepped through the ring, becoming more solid as they approached. The black on them identified them as something that only legends held- traitorous angels. These two had been banished from Heaven, and they would put an end to anything they came across.
Faoran leaped forward, preparing to drive his sword through the heart of the angel with the long white robes. A black sword shivered the length of his, and he was thrown backwards by a gust of wind. The angel with the red tunic appeared in front of him, his sword raised.
* * * *

Arendra and Lyalis spun around the group, easily subduing them. Lyalis spun a net of flame around the group, and the two friends stepped through it. Arendra was becoming more solid, stepping onto the Middle Plane. Lyalis nearly vanished, his body almost fully on the Astral Plane. The leader of the humans suddenly lunged forward, thrusting his sword towards Arendra’s heart. Lyalis leaped through the barrier, bringing his sword the length of the human’s. The human stopped, and Lyalis threw him backwards with a ball of compressed air. He would have bound him to the ground, but Arendra put a hand on his shoulder. “Peace, Lyalis,” he commanded. “We won’t hurt them.”

Faoran heard these words and looked up. Wouldn’t hurt them? Impossible. They were traitors- they cared only for killing everything in the mortal world. To his amazement, the angel with the red tunic and long black wings- Lyalis?- was dissipating the fire. He pushed himself to his feet and warily faced Lyalis. “Who are you?” he asked sharply. “You’re traitors. Why don’t you kill us?” Lyalis gave the other angel a pained look. The other smiled and bowed. “Yes, I suppose that an explanation is in order,” he proclaimed. “Let’s go over there, to that ridge. We should have some cover there.”

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