Content warnings for Part 1 of this chapter include extended scenes of fantasy violence, including blood.
Part 1: Angel
The war zone was more of a Hell than the place Detta had told Lian about. Blood, both angelic and demonic, splattered everything. Her robes were filthy, the once-pristine white stained with both black and glowing gold, from her own wounds, the wounds of her comrades, and the wounds she inflicted on her enemies.
Lian raised her celestial bow and drew back the drawstring back to her cheek, her tired arms shaking from the strain. The arrow formed and she let it fly, but it glowed more dimly than before. It missed the target, a large demon called a Malebranche, by a handbreadth. Watching the arrow go wide, Lila fought the urge to curl her tired, aching arms around herself and cry. Instead, she steadied herself and ducked behind a rocky outcrop, away from the demon’s searching gaze.
As a foot soldier, Lian has always assumed that the higher ranked angels fought by their side, slaying the lowly demons with ease. As a Principality, she’d soon learned that wasn’t the case: each rank of angels was assigned to fight a specific type of demon that closely matched their power level. Archangels fought the massive Malebranche, a large type of demon that stood on two legs and fought with their massive fists. They stood far taller than any other kind of demon and could snatch angels out of the air.
At first, Lian had protested this rationale, but after seeing a Malebranche, she understood. A single Malebranche could easily take out an entire platoon of her soldiers, while the company of Archangels she fought with were barely a match for one. Likewise, the higher ranks of angels prevented the more ferocious demons from attacking her company, for which she was grateful. In particular, the Seraphim were in charge of maintaining aerial supremacy by beating back the only kind of demon who could fly, the windy Libicocco.
Knowing this didn’t make the fear of battle abate, though, especially after her company had been scattered by a surprise attack. During that battle, she’d missed more shots than connected. She’d been at best a minimal support and at worst, a nuisance. And now she was alone again, grounded by the searching Malebranche. She was safe for now, but it was too close and the moment she fled into the sky, it would pluck her from the air like an insect.
A hand came down on her shoulder, and for a moment pure panic sparked through Lian. A celestial blade appeared in her palm as she spun around, ready to gut whoever stood behind her. At the last moment, Healm caught her wrist and turned the celestial blade away from his stomach.
“Hold on, Lian! It’s me!”
She shuddered, collapsing into his side with tears streaking down her face. “D-don’t d-do that-t to m-me!”
“I’m sorry! I- I didn’t intend…” His hand, still holding his weapon, hovered awkwardly over the small of her back. “Lian, are you alright?”
“No!” She sobbed into his bloody robe. “I don’t know what I’m doing and I can’t hit anything and I’m useless! I should have never been made an Archangel! I’m not good enough!”
“Lian.” Healm pushed her back so he could look into her eyes. “I was the one who nominated you for your promotion. Does that mean you don’t trust my judgment?”
Lian shuddered. “Of course n-not. I t-trust you with my life, Healm. You know that.”
For a moment, Healm was rendered speechless. His eyes darkened as he gripped her arm hard enough to leave bruises. “If you can’t trust yourself, trust me. I do not hesitate to place my life in your hands.”
Lian sniffed and wiped her eyes on a clean scrap of her sleeve. “You mean that?”
A ghost of a smile flitted across Healm’s face. “I would trust you with my back for any battle, Lian.”
The monstrous Malebranche Lian had missed with her earlier shot reared its ugly head and finally focused its dull gaze on them with a roar. Healm placed himself between her and the demon, his wings flaring wide as he prepared to lift off. “Back me up?”
She grabbed at the back of his robe. “But- what if I miss? What if I hit you?”
He gave her a single glance over his shoulder. “You won’t.” Then he thrust his wings down, propelling himself high into the air. Once he had made it above the Malebranche, he dove at the demon in a streak of golden light.
Fumbling with her bow, Lian scrambled to draw it back and form an arrow. Her arm still shook, but she managed to calm it as she aimed at the dueling pair in front of her. They rolled in constant motion, a flash of white feathers and black skin, and Lian knew that if she stayed on the ground, she wouldn’t be able to aim at one without danger of hitting the other. Ignoring her fear, she pushed off from the ground.
Carefully, Lian took aim at the back of the Malebranche’s head as it stood between her and Healm. Just as she prepared to loose the glowing arrow, however, a second Malebranche exploded from the ground directly behind Healm. It staggered at first, but then its eyes gleamed dully as it realized the unprotected prize it had stumbled on. Lian tried to cry out a warning, but Healm’s entire being was focused on the Malebranche in front of him. The second Malebranche reached out a mighty hand to pinion him, and without thinking Lian shifted her aim and let go of the bowstring.
The arrow shot past Healm, less than a hand's breadth away from his face. For a moment, angry shock passed over his face, then the Malebranche behind him let out a bellow of pain and the look dissolved. The demon staggered back, an arrow piercing its palm and coming out the back of its wrist.
He quickly spun to dispatch the injured Malebranche. It was off balance from the shot and unable to grab him as he made it past its meaty hands. A single slice to the throat was all it took, and the massive demon fell. Shudders ran through the earth as its body hit the ground.
The first Malebranche was still upright, however, and Healm had left his back wide open in order to take out the second demon. As it reached out for him, Lian shot it in the back of the knee and it also collapsed, howling in pain.
Healm ripped his blade out of the dead Malebranche’s throat, wiping the black blood away from the glowing blade with an expression of distaste. Shading his eyes, he cast a grateful look up at Lian. She returned the look with a weak smile, the shaking fear in her limbs finally subsiding. They could conquer anything as long as they had each other’s back.
And then the expression on Healm’s face morphed to fear. He launched himself into the air, reaching for her with a desperate grasp. At first, she didn’t understand what was happening, but a mere moment before he got to her, Lian finally felt the fetid breath on the back of her neck.
She instantly locked her wings around her body and dropped like a stone. But while the maneuver was quick enough to save her wings, it wasn’t fast enough to avoid the blow that raked across her arm, shredding her robe and leaving long gashes in her skin. The force of the blow slammed her into the ground, where she lay stunned.
Every inch of her body ached. Her vision blurred in and out as she desperately tried to regain her bearings. Lian fought her way to a standing position just in time to see Healm charge the Malebranche and take it down to the ground with a glowing spear thrust to the throat. To Lian’s blurry vision, he looked like a streaking comet.
His expression was the fiercest she’d ever seen as he ripped the spear from the dead Malebranche’s throat, where it transformed into a glowing blade again. Then his fierce eyes softened as he ran to her, pulling her up from the ground.
“Lian! Are you okay? It didn’t hit your wings, did it?”
“I’m okay,” she whispered, wincing as his grip tightened. “It didn’t hit me that hard.”
Ignoring her, Healm hands ripped aside her shredded robe to see the damage for himself. He passed his hand over the wound, transferring some of his energy to her to speed up the healing process.
As soon as she realized what he was doing, Lian jerked away. But she was too late: the flesh at the edges of her wound was already starting to knit together.
“What are you doing?” She cried. “ You need this for yourself! You don’t have to-!”
“Of course I do!” He grabbed her arms, then to her surprise, crushed her against his chest. “You saved me,” he whispered against her neck, his hand cradling the back of her head as his fingers wove into her hair.
Lian wanted to protest, but she couldn’t. Instead, she melted into his arms, reveling in the silky feel of his long hair against her cheek. While away from Detta, she missed the easy camaraderie of a casual touch. Angels didn’t touch often; their wingspans prevented close contact. But while they were both standing firmly on the ground, being held close by one of her best friends was a balm.
Still weak from her healing wound, Lian’s eyes slowly drifted open just in time to see the leer of the Malebranche she had shot in the back of the knee. It had been downed but not killed, and had managed to drag itself from its resting spot and was now reaching for them with a clawed hand.
Just in time, Lian managed to push Healm out of the way and grab her bow. Then, the Malebranche’s grasp tightened around her. The monstrous demon lifted her from the ground, pinning her wings against her back.
She’d known they were big, but now Lian had an appreciation for exactly how huge the Malebranche were. Its fist was almost the height of her entire body; the Malebranche had immobilized her completely from her sternum to her knees, piercing her stomach with sharp claws. Miraculously, her hands were free from the grip and she was able to draw her bowstring back to her cheek. The wounds on her shoulders burned as the skin stretched, and she silently thanked Healm for the energy he had given her, because she knew wouldn’t be able to draw through the pain otherwise.
Lian summoned a golden arrow and aimed it at the Malebranche’s face. For a moment, she saw only anger and a hunger for destruction in those eyes, then they darkened with realization. Was it fear she saw in that gaze? Desperation? Or something else? Lian didn’t bother to find out; she loosed the arrow directly into the Malebranche’s eye.
The monstrous demon went slack. It fell forward, both its head and arms slamming into the earth. The impact drove the arrow deeper into its eye until it ruptured out of the back of its skull. She fought out of its loose dead grip, but before she could free herself Healm was there, hacking apart the thing’s fingers and spraying her already filthy and torn robe with more black blood.
Staggering, Lian caught herself from falling by digging the end of her bow into the ground. With a grim expression, Healm scooped her up into his arms, careful to avoid both her wings and her wounds.
“Healm, you don’t need to carry me… I can fly on my own…” She protested weakly, but he launched himself into the sky with her in his arms anyway, carrying them far from the bodies of the three Malebranche.
“Not fast enough, you can’t.”
Panic surged through her when she realized that he was taking them away from fighting. “No! Wait! We can’t desert our posts! The Seraphim will be furious!”
“We’re not deserting our posts,” he said with a tight jaw. “We’ve done enough. You’ve done enough. You need medical attention.”
“But… my soldiers! I can’t leave them!”
“They were fighting much closer to the back, and it will be easy to sound their retreat on the way. This was not a hard battle for the lower ranks.”
“But there’s still more of the Malebranche out there! What if others need my help? What if they’re even more hurt than I am? What if-?”
“Stop arguing with me, Lian! I’m taking you back and that’s final!” Healm snapped.
Lian stiffened in his arms. She knew Healm could be overprotective at times, but she’d never seen him like this before.
At her response, Healm sighed. “Lian, this is your first battle as an Archangel so you don’t know, but what we just did was far beyond the line of duty. Three Malebranche, with just the two of us? ” He looked down at her as he flew, and his expression was tinged with affection. “No ordinary Archangel could have done what you did, with the injuries you have, and yet you still want to stay and fight. You’ve done enough. It’s better now to retreat to fight another day.”
“Are you just saying that because we can’t afford to lose another new Archangel?” Lian joked weakly.
She expected Healm to brush it off, but his jaw tightened and he looked up, making it impossible for her to make out his expression.
“No. I say this because I don’t want to lose my friend.”