The final breathtaking novel in the Seraphim trilogy by USA Today bestselling author David Dalglish
Eyes closed. Breath steady. The cold floor beneath his knees and elbows smooth, immovable, like his faith. Like his heart.
“I am the blade of the angels,” Liam Skyborn whispered. “I am the flesh on their bones. I am the blood on their feathers.What is holy must never break.”
The litany soothed him as it always did. There could be no turmoil in his heart if he were to fulfill his task. This was too important for hesitation. Much too dangerous for doubt. Humanity’s continued existence depended on his success. One task. Two lives.
“I am the blade of the angels.”
He would kill the little girl who had once sat on his lap begging for more stories of his battles as a Seraph. The girl who had asked him what it was like to fly. Who dreamed of soaring over green lands and blue ocean waters. He’d bring her down in a fiery blaze, all in the name of salvation. He would kill the boy who had carved “mommy is pretty” a dozen times on his bedroom wall as a surprise birthday present. He would put his sword through the child who had once clung to his neck and demanded to be carried up Market Road to the open stalls for sweets.
Liam’s teeth clicked as he ground them together. His children were heretics. Blasphemers. Deniers of the Speaker, and therefore deniers of God himself. Their actions enabled the remaining four islands, Center’s little children, to rebel. A message had to be sent. The angels would not be mocked.
His hand passed over his eyes. Wet? But why? He clenched his hand into a fist, crushing the emotion that threatened to corrupt him.
“I am the blade of the angels,” he said, louder and with a rasp. “I am the flesh on their bones. I am . . .”
The door creaked. Liam’s eyes opened as he sat up from his crouched prayer. The holy Speaker for the Angels stepped inside.
“Are you prepared?” Marius asked, arms crossed over his chest. Liam frowned, and he glanced over himself. He was naked but for a pair of simple gray pants, the many crisscrossing scars of his flesh his only decoration.
“I thought my squadron left tomorrow night?”
“I’ve not come for your squadron,” Marius said. “Only you.”
Liam obediently rose to his bare feet.
“I am ever your servant,” he said, bowing.
Marius led the way back up the stairs. He did not speak, or reveal their destination. Liam kept his mind focused on a song to the angels instead of pondering the reason for Marius’s nocturnal visit. It didn’t matter where they were going, or why, so why wonder? Liam would perform without question whatever the Speaker wished of him.
They passed between two armed soldiers at the top of the stairs as they exited into the grand halls of Heavenstone. Red banners dozens of feet long hung from the ceiling. Stone pillars braced the ceiling, its height so great, the pillars so wide, it was as if Heavenstone were built for giants instead of men. Marius led them down the crimson carpet, through guarded doorways and halls covered with enormous paintings of ancient lands. Snowcapped mountains, endless deserts swirling with sand in great dunes, forests with trees so tall and branches so thick the sun struggled to pierce through to the exotic life hunting and hiding beneath the canopy. The world prior to Ascension. A vital reminder of all the beauty they’d lost.
At last they stopped before a simple wooden door guarded by a knight armed with a halberd. Liam kept his frown hidden. He’d passed this unassuming door many times but had never seen anyone going in or out. The guard swung the door open for Marius while keeping his eyes straight ahead. The two stepped inside, the door shutting behind them with an echoing thud.
“We go where few ever go,” Marius said, and Liam felt his heart seize up. The undecorated room was far larger than he’d expected. Four more soldiers stood guard at the end, barring the way to an ornate lift. The white of its marble and the gold of its decorative writings were a stark contrast to the barren gray of the room. To either side of the lift were large gears with cranks attached.
“My lord,” Liam said as the guards stepped aside, “where is it we go?”
“To the heart of Heavenstone,” Marius said, stepping onto the lift and beckoning him to follow. “Hurry. The night is late, and I do not wish to delay.”
Liam’s meager clothing suddenly felt shameful and disrespectful for where they were headed. He stepped onto the lift while avoiding the gaze of the soldiers, fearful of their judgmental gazes. Once they boarded the lift, two soldiers began cranking, setting chains to rattling and stone to grinding. The lift jolted a moment and then descended down into the stone floor. For a long minute total darkness overwhelmed them, and Liam closed his eyes and meditated on his breathing. He hated darkness. Darkness meant being alone with his thoughts.
A sudden blast of light washed over them. Liam squinted in an attempt to see but found it hopeless. It was as if he stood within a star.
The brightness lasted only a moment before it subsided. Liam glanced above his head, and through the colored blotches he saw the dimming light of more than thirty light elements embedded into the wall.
“A necessary precaution,” Marius said, answering his unspoken question. “The shadowborn can take many forms, but none will survive the holy light of our beloved angels.”
The lift slowed, revealing their destination. It was a single room, with little space between them and the twelve soldiers bowed low in respect. Filling the entire wall opposite the lift was a massive pair of doors. So great was its size that twelve silver chains, six on either side, were required to open it. Its stone was pure white marble and heavily decorated with gold leaf. Liam felt his knees go weak. There were many names for this place. The holy gate. The heart of Center. The angels’ cathedral. All words for a place Liam never thought he’d lay eyes upon.
“At ease,” Marius told the twelve. He exited the lift. Liam followed two steps behind.
The closer he approached the doors, the more Liam was overwhelmed by the sight. He stared at the swirling gold lines, thin and finely carved. They looped and twisted unendingly, patiently spelling out words of worship and praise to the heavens above, unceasing no matter how long one stood before the doors and read. Liam fought an impulse to touch his own tattooed head. His marks were similar, but they were not written with the purity of gold, nor were they words of worship. Their ink was black as sin, and they spoke warnings against open minds, wandering eyes, doubtful tongues, and hesitant hands.
At Marius’s request the dozen guards took up the silver chains attached to the rungs upon the door. Once braced, they turned their heads aside, as if unworthy of even looking upon the light from within the sealed room. With but a word from Marius, they would open the gates.
“Shall I wait here?” Liam asked as Marius put a hand on the door.
“No, Liam,” he said. “You’re coming with me.”
Liam’s heart seized.
“But within—” he began, but was quickly cut off.
“Within is every reason you must succeed in the task I have given you,” Marius said. “This gift is offered to precious few. I pray you cherish it forever.”
Liam swallowed down a stone in his throat thrice the size of Center.
“I am unworthy to be in their presence,” he said. “My heart is weak and my mind sinful.”
“We’re all unworthy,” Marius said. “That’s why it’s a gift. Now hold your head high and step inside.”
The soldiers pulled their ropes, splitting the doors open with a stomach-trembling grinding of stone and gears. Light flooded out the crack. Bright. Pure. Squinting, Liam choked down his fear and entered the greatest and most secretive cathedral buried deep in the heart of Center.
Despite all he knew, all he’d read, Liam was still not prepared.
The cathedral opened out immensely, a tremendous sphere of white marble stretching out hundreds of feet in all directions. Gold and silver ran like rivulets across the walls, winding and dancing like a heavenly spiderweb. An overwhelming beauty, the sight of those walls, but it meant nothing to Liam’s eyes when compared to the otherworldly presence of the three lightborn. They hung beside one another in the center of the vast cathedral, their arms at their sides, gilded manacles clamped about their wrists and ankles. Several more chains looped about their waists, their arms, holding them so that their feet hovered mere inches above the stone floor. It was a vision of imprisonment, but also one of support. Without those chains, the lightborn could never rise at all.
A new servant comes before us?
The voice echoed in Liam’s mind, soft, gentle, tinkling like glass. Liam forced his fearful eyes to meet the gazes of the three. They were giants, incredible beings of crystal and marble and all things good and pure. Their humanoid shapes were flawless. Neither the sky nor the ocean could compare to the blue intermixed with flecks of shining gold in their eyes. Beautiful, yet terrifying. With a clenched fist the heavenly figures could crush Liam’s mortal shell.
“A servant most humble,” Liam said, dropping to his knees.
The middle of the three leaned closer, her form slenderer, somehow more feminine than the other two. He glimpsed the hundreds of tubes piercing her spine. Pearlescent blood flowed through them, vanishing into a hundred holes in the cathedral walls. It was that blood that kept Center floating above the Endless Ocean. The life-giving blood that spared mankind from extinction.
The lightborn’s face was perfectly smooth, without mouth or nose, but he heard her voice as if she whispered beside his ear.
Many men and women are humbled before us, she said. You tell us nothing, so tell us instead your name.
Liam resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder to see if the Speaker was with him.
“Liam Skyborn,” he said. “Knight of Center, follower of God, and obedient servant to his angels.”
“And a fine servant at that,” Marius said, putting a hand on his shoulder. Liam flinched at his touch. “He will be spearheading our retaliation for the outer islands’ blasphemy. I would like you to show him the true threat we all face. I want him to know why we must perform such desperate measures in these trying times.”
A second lightborn stirred, his chains thunderously rattling as he stretched them to their limits. His voice sounded in Liam’s head, its tone deeper than the other’s, like a different-sized bell.
It is a risk to give such knowledge. Not all are strong enough to withstand it.
“I am strong enough,” Liam said, a bit of his sinful pride igniting. “After all I have endured, the truth is the last thing I fear.”
The middle lightborn narrowed her eyes and her giant hand floated toward him, her forefinger pointing. The chain on her wrist flexed, the heavy bolt securing it to the wall groaning.
Then endure, she said. See through the eyes of a man just as ignorant, and just as proud.
The slightest kiss of her finger touched his forehead. Every muscle in his body clenched tight. His vision blanked, and then he was falling, twisting, becoming someone else.
* * *
Lord Commander Alexander Essex stood atop the ramparts of the castle overlooking the sandy coastline. The sun shone bright on his dark skin. He smiled and felt alive. The Oceanic Wall quivered a few miles beyond the edge of the rocky shore, its translucent surface cracking with a thousand silvery spiderwebs.
“The theotechs estimate the wall will collapse before the week’s end,” First Seraph Kaster said, climbing the stone steps to join him on the rampart. His armor, like Alexander’s, shone a brilliant gold in the sunlight.
“And what does Y’vah say of this?” Alexander asked.
“The lightborn says nothing.” Kaster shook his head. “I don’t think he has the strength.”
A grin pulled at the right half of Alexander’s mouth. He turned and clasped Kaster’s armored shoulder with his hand.
“Let it fall,” he said, and he gestured across the shoreline. “What does it matter when we have such power ready for L’adim’s monsters? They’ll never reach a single stone of this castle.”
Kaster said nothing. Alexander pulled him closer, pointing him west. The castle was built upon a high cliff overlooking the smooth shore to the east, the waves having won their war against the stone over the centuries. Golden armored men scrambled over the cliff’s edge like ants, and farther inland, tents formed a haphazard city. Five thousand men armed with spears and shields, the finest Europa had ever crafted, but beyond that front line of foot soldiers waited his pride and joy—the dragoons.
“The shadowborn has never faced the likes of our dragoons,” Alexander said. “Let him come. We shall crush him beneath our heel.”
Still Kaster did not respond. Alexander sensed an uneasy question lurking within him, and he had no patience for it on this fine day.
“What bothers you?” he asked. “Spit it out already before it eats a hole in your stomach.”
“Commander . . . there are many wondering if we should use the time before the Oceanic Wall collapses to retreat further inland.”
“Retreat?” Alexander asked, stepping closer. “And where shall we retreat to?”
“Just a few dozen miles toward Odeon,” Kaster said, refusing to back down. “If we can meet with Commander Torman, and unite Y’vah with Gh’aro, our forces will—”
“Our forces will hold their ground here, where the terrain is favorable and our supplies plentiful.” Alexander snorted. “Besides, Commander Torman is an idiot, a member of the Appeasers before this war started. How he’s kept his position after that, I don’t know.” He glared at the cracking wall. “We will not appease those monsters and their shadowborn master. We will grind them to ash and crystal and build our world anew with their blood.”
Kaster bowed low.
“As you wish,” he said. “Am I dismissed?”
Alexander waved him off. He had more to worry about than the minor rumblings of fear from the more cowardly soldiers under his command. Arms crossed over his chest, he turned east, his smile growing. The castle had been considered a relic of wartime past, but now its sturdy walls would be of great use. Ten dragoons—magnificent mixtures of man and machine sprung forth from the combined minds of himself and Y’vah’s escort of theotechs—waited atop the ramparts, with twenty more on the beach below.
“Come get us, you bastard,” Alexander whispered. “We’re ready.”
* * *
Time loosened. Liam felt its passage across him like a blur, its length unchanged but its speed a thousandfold higher. The sun rose and fell, dancing with the illustrious moon, until it slowed, time hardening, the world resuming its proper way . . .
* * *
Fire blanketed the Oceanic Wall. Every few moments, the fire parted and something struck the other side, creating silver cracks in the wall that spread thousands of feet. With night fallen, that fire, and the shield struggling to hold against it, were more than enough to clearly see the thousands of soldiers forming defensive lines across the beachhead. Alexander imagined what might be large enough to cause such impacts against the wall, decided not to bother. With demons, one never knew for certain their form, let alone their size.
“Are your Seraphim ready?” he asked Kaster, who patiently waited beside him.
“Then take to the skies and ready your elements. Make them suffer long before setting foot on dry land.”
“Will you not watch from the castle?” Kaster asked.
“Here is where I belong. Now go, and ensure your stone casters remember their role.”
“They will,” Kaster said, bowing. “May the angels ever watch over you, Commander.”
“No angels will take me tonight,” Alexander said. “And none are coming for you, either. We’re putting an end to this war.”
Kaster’s wings shimmered, and with a deep, pleasant hum he lifted to the skies to join the one hundred others of Europa’s Second Seraphim Division. Their wings shone like golden stars of the night sky, and their glow strengthened Alexander’s resolve. Not as much as the presence of his dragoons, though.
Alexander walked to five neat rows of his dragoons behind the shield wall at the beachhead and stopped beside the nearest of the machines. The dragoon was a culmination of two years of work, a grand creation of gold and steel. The wide bottom was spherical, and it shimmered white from the power of five light prisms embedded within the protective metal that kept it afloat. The rest resembled a chariot with a cramped space in the center for the driver. The upper half of a golden dragon was carved across the front, its legs reared up, its mouth opened in a snarl. On either side of it, braced to the metallic chariot, were cannons shaped like the naval weapons of old.
A pale bare-chested man sat in the dragoon’s cushioned middle, five tubes sunk into his back. His blood flowed through the clear tubes, traveling to the ten elemental prisms powering each of the two cannons. A seeing eyeglass was strapped to a pole beside his head to aid with aiming long distances. Iron clamps around his waist kept him steady. Dozens of wires controlling the dragoon’s movement sank into the man’s waist, his legs surgically removed upon his acceptance of such a crucial role in the war against the shadowborn.
“Are you ready, Tarkir?” Alexander asked.
The man lowered his head in a respectful gesture.
“We have all suffered much,” Tarkir said. “Now is our time to pay it back.”
The commander grinned.
“That’s the spirit.”
Alexander patted the side of the dragoon lovingly, eager to see its full fury unleashed. Soon. So very soon.
The Lord Commander joined the rest of his army in watching the assault upon the protective dome. L’adim’s army raged on the other side, flinging its might against the lightborn’s defenses. The silver cracks spread wider and wider, so thick they appeared like frozen strikes of lightning. A deafening screech of glass scraping against glass emitted from the wall, coupled with what sounded like ice breaking atop a frozen lake.
And then the wall broke. A deep rumble replaced its glow, strong enough to rattle bones. Wind blasted across the water, angering the surface and knocking helmets off Alexander’s soldiers. The great burning fire fell to the water, momentarily extinguished, but its fall revealed the vast demon horde, so numerous it took Alexander’s breath away.
The iceborn led the way, dozens of giants twenty feet high lumbering across the ocean. With every step the water froze, granting passage to the army that followed. Among them came the stoneborn, even taller than the iceborn, vicious creatures made up of boulders cracking and twisting together into a humanoid shape. The fireborn and stormborn lurked behind, waiting for their time.
Alexander raised his arm and shouted his command. Few would hear his voice, but they’d hear the battle cry of the dragoons.
“Adrian,” he shouted. “Show them humanity’s anger!”
The rider put his hands to the controls. The light beneath his dragoon brightened as the vehicle lifted higher into the air. Crackling sounds swelled from within the cannons, power building, building, until Adrian released it with a single press of a button. Twin lightning blasts surged forward in great swirling beams, rocking the dragoon backward several feet. The beams dwarfed any a single Seraph could manage and contained power Alexander knew nothing could withstand.
The lightning blasts struck the center of an iceborn giant, and it roared as its torso shattered. Thick chunks of ice fell to the frozen ocean, blue blood flowing in streams down its waist and legs. The thing managed a single step before collapsing to its knees and crumbling.
Alexander could hear the cheers of his soldiers at the demon’s demise even amid the chaos. The battle begun, the rest of dragoons unleashed their fury. Streams of lightning and fire shredded the iceborn, melting limbs and blasting holes through their elemental bodies. Ice and stone struck the stoneborn, cracking the boulders of their bodies and ripping off limbs. Ten dragoons atop the nearby castle joined in, assaulting the fireborn and stormborn lurking behind the initial wave of giants. The frozen ocean steadily cracked; the blasts that missed the stoneborn were often still enough to break the ice nearby and send them into the waters below. All in all, it was a blinding display, and Alexander was forced to shield his eyes to watch the battle unfold.
Still the giants came, though far fewer in number. The first of the iceborn touched shore, and it howled as twin beams of fire slammed its neck and face. Its upper half melted and it dropped dead to the hard ground. But the bridge to shore was finally complete, and with a sudden surge the fireborn and stormborn rushed past the dying giants to the shore, eager to battle the thousands of men with their shields and spears.
Now’s your time, Alexander thought, looking to the sky. Kaster’s Seraphim swirled above the battlefield, and when the horde of smaller demons approached, fifteen Seraphim dropped low into a strafing run. Stone flowed from their gauntlets in steady streams, forming a three-foot-high wall protecting the entirety of the shoreline. Alexander’s soldiers rushed to it, spears thrusting up over the top of the fortification at the incoming tide of elementals.
The first few moments of battle were a slaughter, and not in the demons’ favor. The fireborn and stormborn flung themselves against a wall of stone and spears, having to climb one and avoid the other to even begin their attack. Their speed was their only advantage, but with five thousand men pressed shoulder to shoulder and shields at ready, there was no room for the demons to pass, no way for them to dodge.
Alexander’s smile grew as his dragoons continued to sing. Giants littered the horizon, a number that would have terrified any regular force of ground troops but meant nothing to him. His dragoons would crush them before they ever neared his soldiers. His Seraphim circled, blasting the smallerdemons with their elements while leaving the giants for the dragoons.
Slowly men died along the barricade, but with each one that fell another was waiting to take his place. There would be no break in the shields, no gap in the defenses for the demons to exploit. This was it, their breaking point. Despite the countless lost battles other nations suffered, the proud men of Europa would show the world how it was done. It was all a matter of escalation. Soldiers weren’t enough. Seraphim weren’t enough. Machines of war, the greatest mankind had ever seen, were the necessary tools to crush the demons. The nearby dragoon launched another terrifying volley of lightning, and Alexander beamed at his creation.
The dragoons were but the beginning. Now that his original concept had proven superior on the battlefield there’d be architects and theotechs flocking to his aid. How much grander might these war machines grow? What of one piloted by several men, all with different elemental affinities? Gun platforms, airships manned by hundreds of Seraphim, grand cannons rolling on wheels . . . there’d be no limit. L’adim’s rebellion would be crushed, and through the horrors of war amazing new inventions would emerge for the betterment of mankind.
A strange rumble returned Alexander’s attention to the battlefield atop the frozen ocean. The bulk of the demons were in retreat, something that hardly surprised Alexander, but the iceborn giants stood still, collapsing in on themselves, breaking as if from within.
“What’s happening?” Alexander asked Adrian.
The dragoon rider pressed his face to the eyeglass and held it there.
“They’re splitting apart,” he shouted over the chorus of dragoon fire. “They’re becoming smaller iceborn, hundreds of them.”
Alexander stared at the battlefield, contemplating. If the iceborn giants were suddenly numerous and small, it would nullify the effect of his dragoons. A clever strategy, but it would only make them weaker to the Seraphim strafing them from above. And why just the iceborn? The stoneborn continued their lumbering approach. True, the stoneborn were more resistant to the dragoon barrages, but only by a small margin. Why not change as well?
Alexander turned his attention back to Adrian, and he didn’t like the worried look on the rider’s face.
“What is it?” he asked.
Adrian squinted into the eyeglass.
“A shadow’s coming.”
So, it seemed L’adim would finally make his appearance as his army was being destroyed. This sounded excellent to Alexander, not worrisome.
“Where from?” he asked, thinking his dragoons could concentrate fire on the shadowborn.
Adrian pulled away, shaking his head.
Alexander grabbed the edge of the dragoon and pulled himself up. Adrian backed away as best he could to make room. Shifting himself half onto the seat, Alexander looked through the eyeglass, though truth be told the shadow had grown so close he didn’t need its aid. Adrian was right. It didn’t approach from any one direction. Instead, roaring dozens of feet high from horizon to horizon came a tsunami of darkness.
“Nothing we cannot handle,” Alexander said, hopping down. “Stay strong and unleash hell, rider. That’s an order!”
The dragoons blasted their elements into the distance, ignoring the stoneborn. The ice, stone, and lightning vanished within the shadow, while the fire broke into momentary swirls of flame. Nothing slowed it. Alexander’s heart fluttered as the tsunami approached. He’d never before witnessed L’adim in person, only heard rumors of his power. Was this it? Was this overwhelming wave his true presence? So be it. The demons could bleed, and they could die. The shadowborn was no different.
The wave of darkness curled as the shore neared, and with chilling silence it slammed downward upon itself and flooded against the stone barricade, hiding the smaller demons from view. The soldiers braced themselves, but no attack came. The liquid darkness pooled and curled at the barrier, licking it, teasing it, but not passing over. The stoneborn giants were the only demons left visible, the shadow up to their chests as they lumbered onward. Dragoons focused their fire upon them, the battery steadily wearing the giants down.
What was the point of this? wondered Alexander. To hide their retreat?
And then a torrent of fire erupted several hundred feet away from the barricade. It moved through the shadow, the fireborn hidden within its chaotic inferno. Stormborn joined them, their lightning crackling through the fire and shadow. It seemed a cloud of hell had risen before their defenses, and within it hid all sorts of monstrosities. The shadow wasn’t there to hide the demons’ retreat. It was there to disguise their attack. When the fire and lightning reached the wall, the demons leapt over the barricade, assaulting the shield wall with renewed frenzy.
The dragoons resumed firing upon the stoneborn, but the creatures endured, not caring for their losses. They bent to the darkness at their feet, hands scooping. Alexander’s eyes widened with horror as he realized their plan. The stoneborn giants hurtled dozens of demons through the air in a single, smooth pitch, aiming for the row of twenty dragoons behind the embattled defense line.
The demons landed and scattered in a rolling chaos. Their high-pitched laughter grated up and down Alexander’s spine as they jumped up to attack. Soldiers scrambled, dragoons firing even as fireborn sank their molten teeth into their flesh and stormborn flooded their bodies with electricity. A few Seraphim broke ranks to help defend, the rest too busy holding back the tremendous tide slamming into the defensive barricade.
Alexander climbed onto Adrian’s dragoon and drew his sword.
“Keep firing,” the commander shouted. “I’ll keep us safe!”
The dragoon’s cannons sang as Alexander swung his sword, slicing a fireborn in half. Its burning blood splashed the ground beneath the dragoon, hardening in the soft white glow of the dragoon’s engines. A stormborn sparked below them, zipped to the side nearest Alexander, and then leapt up at Adrian’s throat. The tip of Alexander’s sword greeted it, piercing through its open mouth and out its belly. The yellow corpse collapsed over the side.
“Fly higher!” he shouted to Adrian. The light beneath the dragoon beamed brighter, steadily lifting the vehicle. Another stormborn lashed at Alexander, white and gold light swirling around its reaching hands. Alexander pulled away his leg, grimacing as a claw made brief contact with his ankle. Electricity traveled all the way to his hip, firing off muscles and flooding him with pain. He returned the favor with his sword, slashing off the stormborn’s jaw and then kicking the damn thing to the ground.
Another volley of demons arrived, but the Seraphim were ready, and there were fewer of the battered stone giants now to throw them. Men died by the hundreds along the barricade, but Alexander held out hope. This was the demons’ last hurrah. They just needed to survive a little bit longer. His eyes searched the battlefield, a troubling question tickling his stomach. The fireborn and stormborn were racing through the liquid shadow to attack the ground troops. The stoneborn had assumed the form of giants, doing their best to besiege the dragoons behind the front lines. But what of the iceborn? Where had they gone after breaking apart and vanishing beneath the crawling darkness?
The ground shook, an earthquake thrice the power of when Y’vah’s shield had collapsed. Alexander gripped the side of the dragoon, his jaw falling slack. It couldn’t be. His eyes must be deceiving him.
Shadow and water rolled off the creature rising from the waters beside the tall castle cliff. Its head was the size of a cottage, its broad shoulders little blue hills. It continued to rise, higher and higher, four arms digging into the steep cliffside as it pulled itself up from the ocean. The gargantuan creature was beyond anything Alexander had ever seen. Its three-fingered hands bore enormous spikes of ice, and they slammed into the hard stone, pulling itself toward the castle. The creature had milky white eyes, no mouth, and a crown of horns formed by nine jagged spikes of frost. Long, thick icicles trailed from its head down to its waist, frosted white and shimmering like frozen hair.
“The iceborn,” Alexander whispered, still in shock. “It’s all of them together. Every last one.”
The cliffside began to crumble under the gargantuan’s weight, but it kept digging deeper, pulling itself higher as boulders crashed into the ocean below. The dragoons turned their fire toward it, needing no order to prioritize such a terrifying monstrosity. Fire, lightning, and stone struck its arms and sides, sending showers of frost flying in small white puffs. They were but bee stings, inconveniences as the iceborn climbed, and climbed, until it reached the castle and the dragoons stationed atop.
It took less than a minute for the iceborn to smash the ancient fortress to the ground. Its four arms thrashed and grabbed, walls crumbled by its strength, towers collapsed like they were made of glass instead of centuries-old stone. Alexander watched it all with newfound horror in his gut and tears threatening his eyes. The ice of the creature’s face split wide, giving it a mouth with which to speak. The creature’s voice thundered across the countryside like a volcanic eruption.
YOU ARE CHILDREN WITH TOYS. BREAK THEM. BREAK THEM ALL.
The entire cliff collapsed, castle and iceborn crumbling together to the ocean. The iceborn’s laughter was still audible over the roar of the stone and the splash of the water.
Alexander climbed down from the dragoon, his hands shaking and his knees weak. The plan had been to retreat to the castle should the battle turn ill, but there would be no retreat. There was no castle. The gargantuan iceborn had crushed it to rubble with its mere fists. The soldiers had lost the stone barricade along the beachhead, forced to engage in scattered duels without shield brothers to rely upon. The stoneborn had stopped flinging demons and instead were throwing enormous chunks of ice and stone at the Seraphim in the sky, scattering them out of their tight formations.
No hope left. The battle was lost. Alexander reached into his pocket and pulled out a heavy gold cylinder. He twisted off the top, then pushed the bottom, connecting the light element inside to the many wires built into the cylinder. A thick beam of light focused by a series of mirrors across the top shone into the air. Alexander held the light aloft, waiting. Within moments one of the golden wings curled his way, a Seraph coming to answer his summons.
“Our forces are broken,” First Seraph Kaster said, landing before the Lord Commander on one knee. “What are your orders?”
“Take me to Y’vah,” Alexander said. A hard look crossed Kaster’s face, one Alexander could not decipher. The Seraph dipped his arms underneath Alexander’s shoulders and wrapped his hands together in a tight lock across his chest.
“As you wish, Commander.”
Together they fled high above the pathetic remnants of Alexander’s army. They left behind dying men who’d thrown down their arms in retreat from the demons swarming them. They left the broken remains of Alexander’s dragoons, the mighty machines turned to wasted junk with massacred drivers. Stony hills and village hamlets replaced swirling shadow as they traveled. The rushing wind was a haunting tone in his ears. They flew, and flew, until arriving at a simple, elegant shrine. Nine stones formed a circle atop a hill, each side carved with golden runes facing east. In the very center, his light visible from more than a mile away, floated Alexander’s only remaining hope for survival.
Y’vah hovered several feet in the air, his arms stretched toward the ground. Golden mist fluttered into the air from underneath his closed marble eyelids. A great beam of light shone from his legs, steady like a waterfall. The light struck the ground and rolled in all directions in barely visible waves for several hundred feet before rising up to form a newly summoned protective dome over the surrounding area. Eight theotechs knelt between the pillars, heads bowed in prayer, their red robes fluttering in the ethereal wind swirling around the white beam.
“Y’vah!” Alexander shouted as Kaster set him down. “Our defenses failed. We need you to resummon the wall farther inland to protect our retreat!”
The lightborn tilted his head toward him, and his eyes opened. No mouth creased his perfectly smooth face, but he spoke nonetheless, his words clear in Alexander’s mind.
I cannot. I must first rest.
“Rest? How long?”
Alexander fought against the steadily growing panic inside him. He felt it flickering, a small fire eager to burst into an inferno.
“We don’t have several days,” Alexander said. “I doubt we have several hours.”
The time I have does not change the time I need, Alexander.
The commander’s mind raced as he scrambled for a solution. Perhaps he could order Y’vah to retreat, but he doubted the celestial being would care for an order given by a human. The only potential reinforcements were in Odeon, but it would take days for them to arrive, not that Alexander believed they’d answer a summons. They’d protect the capital, not die in fields attempting to save a desperate few who’d survived the battle at the beachhead.
“Kaster, what is your . . .”
Alexander stopped, stunned to see his First Seraph no longer at his side. Instead he saw him far to the east, the gold dot of his wings a shining insult of cowardice. Turning back to the west, Alexander saw the first hints of the shadow wave crashing toward them. The liquid darkness bathed the land, covering grass and tree, a demonic flood approaching their meager little shrine.
“What do we do?” Alexander asked aloud. He spun to the theotechs, maddened by their constant, steady prayers. “What do we do!”
It seemed even Y’vah would not listen. Panic continued its spread throughout his body, tightening his throat, cramping his stomach, and layering his skin with cold sweat. With a sudden quiver in Y’vah’s protective dome, the shadow arrived. It surrounded them, completely covering the barrier.
It’s a smaller shield, Alexander thought. Hundreds of miles smaller than the Oceanic Wall. Maybe it will hold. Maybe Y’vah can endure.
The shadow burst into flame. Alexander flinched despite not feeling a lick of heat. The fire rolled around them, smothering, flooding their enclosed space with crimson light. Alexander watched in awe and then terror as the first of many cracks flickered across the lightborn’s barrier. How many demons were out there? Alexander could almost feel their claws ripping into his flesh. Would their teeth pierce, or would they burn? Would he die of pain before they finished eating?
“Y’vah!” Alexander screamed at the lightborn. “Get us out of here!”
There is nowhere to flee. We are surrounded, and my shield shall soon fall.
The panic burning in Alexander’s veins was now a wildfire. He spun, eyes wide, the spiderwebs of cracks beginning their dance across the dome as the demons flung their bodies against it. The eight theotechs sang their prayers louder, begging for safety and absolution.
“It can’t end like this,” Alexander shouted. “You’re God’s angel! Do something!”
The lightborn tilted lower, his arm stretching out at a calm, careful pace.
I shall remember you, Y’vah said, the smallest tip of his forefinger gently brushing Alexander’s face. And as I remember you, so shall my brethren remember you.
“Remember me?” Alexander asked. “But what of heaven? Will we not die and ascend?”
I do not know, said Y’vah. The shield vanished, and his toes touched ground. Let us find out together.
* * *
Liam gasped as the lightborn’s finger pulled away from his forehead. It felt like she’d brushed him for a moment, but the vision, no, the experience he’d lived had lasted hours. The sensation of his own body was welcome, and he closed his eyes while struggling to control his breathing. So much he’d seen. The incredible might of the pre-Ascension armies, and how little it had mattered against the power of the shadowborn and his demons. The breaking of the protective dome. The death of a lightborn. But most painful was the beauty of the old world, the shorelines, the hills, the land stretching far beyond what the eye could see. All lost.
Marius’s hand rested against Liam’s back, the touch gentle, reassuring, like a father’s.
“Now you see,” Marius said. “The Ascension spared us from extinction. The dome saved us from the demons’ nightly assaults. But our realms squabble while all we’ve ever accomplished hangs in the balance. There is no measure that goes too far. There is no risk we cannot take. Our islands must be united if we are to be victorious.”
Liam rose to his feet and wiped the beginnings of tears off his face.
“I understand,” he said. “No threat is greater. All must be sacrificed.”
Marius lingered closer, those sapphire eyes piercing deep into him.
“Even kin,” he said.
A blasphemous shiver of fear ran through Liam but he nobly banished it from his mind. He fell to one knee, lifted his hands up, and bowed his head in supplication. When he spoke, his words were steady, his heart true. Before his Speaker, and the angels of God, he made his vow.
“I swear upon our God, who is faultless and mighty,” Liam said. “I swear upon the angels, who speak God’s voice to the chosen. I swear upon the Speaker, who shares the angels’ will with the people. My heretic children must die. Their blood will paint my swords, and their wings shall fall from the sky. So shall it be, until my final breath and the angels take me away.”
A hand touched Liam’s chin, lifting his head. Marius knelt before him. Pride beamed from his steady gaze.
“I know of no finer servant,” the Speaker said. “So shall it be, my friend. So shall it be.”
Liam returned his eyes to the floor to hide the sudden resurgence of tears.
I am the blade of the angels, he shouted inside his mind. I am the blade of the angels. I am the blade. I am the blade. I am the blade.