Zurien knelt quailing, head-bowed and waiting for judgement. He could not look up, could not bear the glory before him. That he had come to this; a thousand years, truly, for this moment?
'You are guilty of the gravest sin,' God's voice was a whisper and a hurricane at once; it set his brain alight. 'Pride. Heaven is bereft.'
Even through closed eyes the flare was devastating-harsh, searing. There was no hiding.
'I'm sorry.' Zurien's lips formed the words but they drowned in his shame, and he made no sound. There came a great pressure, and God's presence retreated, but when Zurien opened his golden eyes he saw that it was not God who had moved. He was falling.
He tumbled from the heavens, into realms where pain and death held sway. A ragged, uncontrollable scream tore from his throat. He was in agony, blazing across the sky like a shooting star, plunging through clouds in burning trails and spun-out wisps of white. His feathered wings wrenched back as the speed of his descent tore through muscle and cartilage.
This was what it meant to fall; he followed the path of Lucifer who was the first, many centuries before. His crime was the same.
He could never say, later, how long or how far he plummeted; the pain consumed everything, it made of his body a cage his thoughts could not escape. The fall was timeless, wordless, hopeless. After a moment or a hundred years he saw the ground rushing to meet him, a city, a district, a warehouse beside a wide lazy river. He shrieked as he punched feet first through the roof timbers, smashing them to jagged shards.
He tumbled in a welter of broken wood and feathers, landing hard, face down on rough stone, the breath rushing from him. He lay there for a long moment, among the dust and splinters. Angelic bones do not break; the pain subsided slowly, a receding tide, but in its wake he found his body intact. Unlike his wings; when he rose they hung limp behind him, a useless and unsightly burden.
He looked up as a figure dropped through the scorched hole in the roof, slowing his descent with outstretched leathery wings of crimson. Red scales stood out here and there on the pale skin of his torso, shimmering like rubies in the shaft of bright sunlight. He wore buckskin trousers, and his lips curved faintly upwards beneath penetrating dark eyes. A halo hung in the air above his head, but it was tainted and stained dark.
The newcomer tilted his head back, looked up into the sky. 'The memories never leave,' he murmured, before turning his gaze on Zurien. 'I am Nalarael.'
Zurien could not return his smile. He looked down at his feet. 'This is a mistake. I am not like you.'
'Is that so?' Nalarael snorted. 'I would say there's a case for each of us. What did you do?'
Zurien shook his head. What had he done? It had hardly seemed a crime, and he could hardly believe the severity of the judgement. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand in a savage motion.
'It is not for you to judge me,' he said, chin raised. 'I will find my way back to Him.'
'Perhaps. Are you sure you want to? With Lucifer as your prince you can do as you please.'
'I will never join the seven princes. I want no part in hell.'
Nalarael snarled, clenching his fist until the knuckles turned white. 'Listen friend, do you know where you are?'
'Very clever,' said Nalarael, his eyes flashing. 'You are in Aderno, of the holy circle. Your halo is just as black as mine.'
There was a moment of silence between them, neither quite understanding the other. Nalarael bared his teeth, exasperated. 'I'd almost forgotten the naivety they breed up there. Allow me to spell it out. There are worse things than falling. Angel tough you may still be, but immortal no longer. To the people of this city, you are an enemy.'
Zurien took a deep breath. Survival. But not at such a cost, he was better than the damned. God would see his sin was not so great; he would find his way back. 'I am not so weak as to crown Lucifer in my heart,' he spat. 'You may keep him.'
'Lucifer is not my master, fool. My sin was not as yours, and neither is my prince. Do not tempt me to demonstrate.' Nalarael took a step forward, his wings flaring out, and Zurien saw within his narrowed eyes a reflection of the wrath that had surely made him fall. Yet he could not stand to back down.
Nalarael growled, unsettling-deep. 'Threats are better than promises. Why do you imagine god allowed Lucifer to survive when He fell, or Satan, or any of the seven? Either he is not as omnipotent as he claims, or yet he needs Hell, as a means to human obedience. If you do not join us, you will regret it.'
Zurien held. 'I am not like you,' he said, his voice flat. 'You are beneath me.'
He thought that violence was coming; there was a murderous set to Nalarael's features as the fallen angel regarded him. For a long, tense moment he almost felt the shocking thump as the scaled fist hammered into his ribs. But Nalarael whirled, turning his back on Zurien, and his great wings began to beat.
'You're on your own then. I wish you luck,' he called back as he rose from the ground, downdrafts sending up clouds of dust and dirt and dried bird droppings. 'You will need it.' His wingspan was too vast to allow him through the hole; he folded them to his side and clutched at the edge, scrambling through with a muttered curse. Then he was gone, leaving only a profound silence.
Zurien sank down on the edge of a crate. What was he to do next? He could not begin to formulate a plan. The warehouse contained only a disorganised jumble of boxes and sacks, dust mites swirling in the sunlight that shone in through the broken roof.
Zurien's fingers clutched at the angel chain that hung around his neck. A symbol of his link with God. He was not surprised to see that where once it had glowed it was now tarnished, the metal warped and twisted. It was not broken; there was still a chance.
He scrambled behind an untidy pile of boxes as a key turned in the lock of the warehouse doors. They creaked as they swung open; Zurien dared not look, back pressed against a wooden crate, sweat collecting on his forehead in the ferocious heat.
Heavy footsteps sounded, then stopped. Zurien heard cursing in a thick accent.
'Is there somebody here?' a voice called. Zurien did not move, dared hardly breathe. 'Fallen through my bastard roof, so there must be, unless you can fly out again eh? Fine, we'll wait it out, and my boy'll away to fetch the guard.'
Taking a breath, Zurien stood, stepping from his hiding place, hands raised in surrender. 'There's no need, friend,' he said in a soft voice. He saw a swarthy, bearded man standing in the sunlight that flooded in through the open doors. Beyond him stood a simple cart with peeling yellow paint, attached to a yoked ox. 'I'm not your enemy.'
The man's eyes widened. He spat a greasy brown gob of tobacco into the dirt at his feet. 'Fallen eh? Been a good while since the last one came through. What is it about the angels, eh? You'd best wait here, I'll fetch someone to help.' He started to walk away.
'Wait,' Zurien called, and the man half turned, looking back over his shoulder. 'No one's going to help me, are they?'
The man shrugged, shoulders rising and falling with the minimum possible effort.
'They'll kill me, won't they? I want to live.'
'And I want someone to fix that hole up there for free. Not going to happen though. It is what it is. You want to live, then I expect that's not free either.'
Zurien swallowed hard. 'You could hide me in the back of your cart. Just get me out of the city, until I can...' His voice trailed off; he had no plan.
'Well I could.' The man rubbed at his chin. 'But I'll be needing some feathers for a fee. Bit singed, bit broken, but I daresay there's a market. What about that chain?'
Zurien's hands rose to the blackened gold of the angel chain. 'It won't come off,' he murmured, hoping it was the truth.
The man shrugged again. 'It's not much anyway. Just the feather's then, eh?' He squinted up at the sunlight coming in through his roof. 'I suppose. Best get to plucking, eh.'
The cart rattled on cobbled streets, bouncing Zurien as he lay curled against rough wooden planks. His broken wings were pressed against him, the stubs of feathers scratching and digging at his skin. The air was stifling. His throat was dry; he longed to cough but dared not. The motion of the cart made him nauseous.
That it had come to this! Remorse for his sin paled beside anguish over his predicament. Once beyond the walls, what then? Never had he been so profoundly alone.
Wrapped in misery, Zurien failed to notice the cart slowing. It was only when it halted with a final jerk and shudder that he was wrenched from bitter thoughts. He could hear muffled footsteps, and voices, though he could not tell the words. He shifted; it occurred that he had been too trusting.
The sack that covered his upper body was pulled aside, and he blinked into the glare of the midday sun. A face came into view above, broad and covered in stubble, peering at him beneath knitted brows. Zurien heard the voice of the carter, somewhere out of sight.
'Fallen angel, eh?'
'I see him.' The man's eyes remained on Zurien, taking in his broad arms, proud pectorals. 'You'll not give us trouble now, will you? You'll come with us.'
A rush of frustration, a pounding howl that they would dictate terms, when he had soared so high above them. Zurien surged to his feet, towering over the man, fists clenched, ready to jump down and unleash. Then he saw the ring of steel he was caught in. A dozen men at least, spears gripped and pointed at a broken, finished angel.
'Oh,' he said. He slumped. 'Oh. Dear Father...'
He allowed them to lead him away, through streets packed with passersby. They stopped, they turned and gawked, eyes of accusation and all wondering what he had done. What answer could he give that would satisfy both them and himself? What that would satisfy God?
He hardly saw the market stalls, the granite and timber buildings. The world was a blur, but his memories had crystal clarity. God had been testing a man; destroyed life, slaughtered family, the complete over-the-top treatment. Zurien had not worried for the man. He had come through and been rewarded, and apparently one wife and set of children for him were much as any other.
Nobody seemed to consider the first wife, his first children. Killed almost as a sideshow, killed to prove a point, an un-mourned and un-remarked-on casualty of the tug of war between heaven and hell. Zurien had dared to wonder if it was fair. He had said it did not seem just. A simple observation but loaded with a trap. He had dared to question God.
The guards led him through a narrow alley between crowded gothic edifices. Mailed fist raised, the man before him pounded on a small plain door set into the wall. Zurien was passed over to soldiers wearing white surcoats and grim expressions, who marched the fallen angel between them down narrow steps. Flickering candles set in wall sconces provided the only light as they descended below ground.
With each step, Zurien felt he was drawing closer to his execution. He entered a stone passage, filthy with spiders' webs. He shuddered as his wings brushed the damp walls. He could hear scratching, murmuring voices, dripping water. Every sense told a sinister tale, a warning that he had no power to heed.
He was pushed through a low doorway into a room of brutal instruments. In the corner a rack beckoned, frayed ropes hanging. In the centre of the room torchlight glinted from black iron, the cap and screw of a head crusher, dark stains on the bottom bar and soaked into the scarred table top. Other things lurked in the shadows, grim constructions of metal and balding leather; Zurien did not know their function, but their purpose was difficult to miss.
Two men in black robes and cowls sat beyond the table, one fleshy and one gaunt, straight in high-backed chairs. Zurien stood before them with guards at his back, looking down with a dead expression. The inquisitors contemplated him silently for a moment, faces half in shadow. One of them made quiet tutting sounds, tongue against teeth.
'It's always a sad day,' the fat one said, 'God must be weeping over you in heaven.'
'Angels should be filled with his glory,' the other said, shaking his head, 'a sad, sad day.'
Zurien glanced over at the rack, swallowed hard. Would not bow before such as this. 'Get to the point,' he said, and tried to keep his voice from cracking. 'You think the sorrow is all yours, now?'
'So he is sorry,' the thin man said. 'That's good, it's good. We may hope for reconciliation.'
'We don't torture your kind,' the fat man said, seeing Zurien's darting eyes. He smiled. 'It would not be seemly.'
'What then?' Zurien raised his hands to the tarnished angel chain. He shook.
'God is forgiving,' the fat man said, his arms spread, 'you don't need us to tell you. It is not too late for you to go to back to him. Heaven can be yours again.'
'But not easily,' the gaunt man raised his chin, peered along the length of his nose, 'not easily. The process begins with acceptance of guilt. It begins with contrition. Unfeigned and unfettered.'
Zurien blinked at them. God could restore his glory, he could join the eternal ranks again as though none of this had been. If he only humbled himself. It was a choice he had been offered before.
When they had come for him, to haul before his judgement, he had been told: only admit your fault, only admit that you misspoke. Only be penitent, and you may save yourself. He had tried; the words had lodged in his throat. Injustice had choked him. He did not have to understand God's actions, they told him, just believe that they must, ultimately, be right.
He could not accept it.
And now that he had walked the earth, and come to the ruin his pride had led him, could he renounce it? He wanted, oh how he wanted, to go back to heaven. He wanted to believe in God's omniscient plan. He should have knelt, he should have cried for forgiveness. Was it not possible, even likely, that the fault was his?
He opened his mouth, but the words would not come. His knees would not bend, not now and not ever again. If God was truly always right, why the constant need for others to affirm it?
'I don't believe in God's justice anymore,' he said in a quiet voice. The fat man leaned forward with an indrawn breath, the gaunt man reeled back as though struck.
'And I suppose you are the judge of that, are you?' the fat man said. 'Arrogance!'
'Only think what you are doing. You are not immortal here. If you won't return to God then we have no choice, no other choice. We have the means to end you.'
Zurien's body tensed, he lashed out with a bare foot, smashing the table back into the laps of the inquisitors, sending them crashing to the floor with cries of dismay. He span, caught one of the guards behind him with a sharp blow to the neck; he reeled back with a strangled squawk. The other guard tugged at his sword. Before he could draw it from the scabbard Zurien leapt at him, pushing him back hard so that his head cracked against the wall and he went limp.
He was stronger and faster than any human, but now the corridor was filled with the sound of running feet, boots on stone. Torchlight glinted on drawn steel. There were too many of them, too many grim faces, too many blades held towards him. Zurien screamed, a bestial, wounded cry. He wrenched at the chain around his neck, snapping the weakened metal, sending tarnished golden scraps showering to the floor. Then something struck his head hard, snapping it back, and everything went dark.
In the muted light of dawn he was led in chains into a courtyard. The gallows waited, the noose yawned empty. A simple stage, rough-sawn wood supports. Not a public execution, just a quiet disposal of an unwanted complication. They had not even bothered to clean him up; Zurien's face was covered in dried blood, his hair was wild and above it his halo hung blacker than ever.
'God weeps for his fallen child,' the fat inquisitor's voice filled the otherwise silent space, standing just beyond the gallows, holding a great leather-bound bible. 'That you persist in your folly, even unto the end.'
'Oh, I have been foolish,' Zurien said with a strange smile. He would have prayed that it was not too late for him, if he had known who to pray to. 'If this is fallen, then fallen I am. Nalarael!' he raised his voice to a sudden shriek, startling the guards who walked alongside him. 'Nalarael! Lucifer! Satan! Leviathan! I am one of you! Do not abandon me!'
What sad irony if the pride that had ripped him from heaven could hold him from hell as well. The fat priest was staring at him with a mixture of contempt and fear. The gallows creaked. Zurien thought he felt a dread wind. He thought he heard the beating of great wings.
x x x
Angels - no sense of humor. Lots of other senses, though, it seems. This British invasion of anotherealm is a debut story worth pondering. Tell us your ponders on our BBS. - GM