That afternoon, because it was midsummer and too hot to work in the fields, the village children went up the hill to see the Angel. A path had been worn into the forest floor and the children ran along it until their breath was gone. They walked until it returned again. Then they ran again. It was a long way and some of the little children had to be carried by the older ones – but not Phoebe. She was big enough now to climb all the way to the Angel’s cave by herself.
Although the trees provided some shade, it was still hot and they arrived at the cave panting and red-faced. Phoebe’s hands were sticky in the heat.
The Angel was sitting at the mouth of the cavern, eyes closed, his huge legs folded and his huge hands clasped in his lap. They often came upon him sitting like that. The older children said it was how he rested. They approached him on tiptoes, in case he was sleeping. Even the little ones knew not to talk.
They froze. One of the Angel’s eyes had opened. His lips were split in a smile. ‘Hello, children,’ the Angel rumbled. ‘Have you come to hear a story?’ They had and settled themselves on the cool cave floor.
Some of the other children were scared of the Angel – Phoebe could tell because they didn’t want to sit near to him. He was very big, but she wasn’t scared.
The Angel had lived in this cave since her grandmother’s mother was a little girl. That was what her father said. Whenever one of the great jungle beasts threatened the village, he would put on his black armour, track it down and slay it. Her father said the King-in-the-Stars had sent him to watch over them. He said the Angel knew no fear.
Phoebe sat beside the Angel’s huge, bare foot and looked up at his scarred face. He was their protector and she knew he would not harm them.
‘Which story would you like to hear?’ the Angel said.
The older children all had suggestions.
‘Tell us about the time you slew the gorebear!’
‘Tell us about the time you drove the Irundi back across the river!’
‘Tell us about your battle with the black sloughwurm!’
Phoebe had heard those stories before. They all had. She didn’t understand why the others were asking to hear them again when there was so much they didn’t know about the Angel. She thought about him a lot – at night when she couldn’t sleep, or by day when she was husking grain or doing one of a thousand other boring chores. Where had he come from? Did he have a family? Surely he did not belong here, on the hill above their village.
The Angel must have noticed her frowning, for he turned to her and said, ‘What about you, little scowling one? What story would you like to hear?’ The other children were looking at her. Phoebe felt as if cold hands had gripped her insides and twisted. But she gathered her courage and said, ‘Tell us about where you come from.’
The Angel looked surprised, but he was smiling. ‘You know, the children used to ask me that all the time,’ he said. ‘But it’s a story I haven’t told in a long while. Shall I tell it now?’
The other children yelled their assent. Phoebe was proud. Sometimes you had to be brave to get what you wanted, and she had been brave – brave like the Angel.
‘Very well.’ The Angel’s brows gathered in thought. ‘I come from a place that is not unlike this one, but it’s a long way away. To get there, you have to travel through the night sky. You could walk your whole life and you would only be a fraction of the way there.
‘Like this place my home was covered in forests, but they were dark, cold forests. Great beasts stalked them. Our houses were tall and made of stone to keep us safe from the beasts, but there were some among us who left the stone houses and went into the forests to slay the creatures that dwelled there.
‘When I was a boy, just like some of you, a great warrior came among us, a man stronger and fiercer than any before him. He mustered a great army and led them against the beasts. He wanted to cleanse the planet so we could live in the forests without fear. And he succeeded.’
‘Was he an angel?’ Phoebe cut in. Some of the other children shushed her but she ignored them. ‘Were you all angels?’
The Angel shook his head. ‘He was no angel. The angels came later, with the King-in-the-Stars. In the moment of our triumph over the beasts of the forests, a great glittering city appeared in the heavens above our home. It was the King-in-the-Stars and a host of black-armoured angels.
‘He was fighting a great war in the heavens and he wanted us to fight alongside him. He wanted the help of his son, the one who had led us against the beasts. Those who joined the King-in-the-Stars were blessed with his gifts and became his angels. Though just a boy, I was one of those chosen to receive the blessing.
‘We fought countless battles among the stars and won a great many victories. But we were betrayed – or perhaps we were the betrayers. The more I think upon it, the less clear it becomes.’
The Angel trailed off and looked skywards through narrowed eyes, his heavy brows sliding together above the bridge of his nose. A distant screeching reached Phoebe’s ears and she turned and saw a dark speck dropping from the sky. When she looked at the Angel again, he was on his feet.
‘Children,’ he said. ‘Run back to the village and tell everyone to stay indoors.’
The tone of his voice had changed completely. The softness and the patience were gone; now it was a voice you did not question. Phoebe wanted to ask what the speck in the sky was, and why it had so alarmed the Angel, but she didn’t dare.
Although the story wasn’t finished, the children scrambled to their feet and set off down the hill. Phoebe was at the back of the group and, as they left the clearing around the Angel’s cave, she turned and looked behind her. The Angel had disappeared into the cave’s dark interior.
‘Phoebe, come on!’ One of the older children was waiting for her. Phoebe shook her head. She would wait for the Angel. She wanted to see him in his black armour. She wanted to see him go to battle.
The older boy threw his hands up in frustration and set off after the others. Phoebe crept back to the cave, scanning the jungle around the clearing for somewhere to hide.
She was crouched behind a sawthorn bush when the Angel reappeared. His black armour made him even larger, and such was his weight that she could feel each step through the ground. In his left hand was his many-toothed sword, the slayer of countless jungle beasts. People said it roared when it tasted blood. In his right hand he carried his helmet, and doubtless more weapons lurked in the pouches around his waist.
As the Angel emerged from his cave a faint breeze stirred the trees. The screeching sound became a howl and the wind rose to a gale. Phoebe turned skywards, mouth agape as she stared at what looked like a vast bone-white house dropping into the clearing. It slowed before it hit the ground, but still landed with enough force to shake the trees and send a flock of scalefinches squawking into the air.
The howl stopped abruptly and, in the sudden quiet, Phoebe realised her hands were shaking. She wanted to run but her legs wouldn’t move. She told herself she had to be brave. Brave like the Angel.
A door opened on the side of the house and Phoebe watched as three figures emerged. They were giants, like the Angel, and wore similar armour – two in a bone white that matched their flying house and a third in black. The black-armoured giant had a skull with burning eyes where his head should be. Phoebe needed all her courage just to look at him.
The Angel seemed calm as they approached. The newcomers stopped just out of the reach of his mighty toothed sword, and for a moment nobody said anything. Phoebe scarcely dared to breathe.
‘Well met, brothers,’ the Angel said.
One of the bone-white giants tore off his helmet to reveal a face twisted with hatred. He spat at the angel’s feet. The ground hissed where his spit landed. ‘You’re no brother of ours.’
The Angel tapped his shoulder, where a red winged symbol was painted on his black armour. ‘Do we not all bear the badge of the First?’
‘You forfeited all right to carry that symbol when you turned traitor!’ The spitter was almost shouting. The giant beside him laid a hand on his shoulder as if to calm him.
Now the skull-headed one spoke. He had a deep, rasping voice; Phoebe could almost feel it abrading her skin. ‘Brother-Sergeant Wulfried, formerly of the sixth chapter of the first legion. We are not here to offer you brotherhood. We are here to take you back to the ruins of Caliban, where you will be made to repent for your sins. All there is to discuss is whether you will come willingly, or whether we must force you to submit.’
The Angel smiled sadly. His shoulders seemed to sag under the weight of his armour. ‘I have no need of the atonement you offer, brothers,’ he said. ‘A sinner I may be, but I am doing my penance here.’
‘Fool!’ bellowed the spitter. He reached for a weapon on his belt. ‘You have spurned your only chance to repent without pain.’
‘Am I to do battle with all three of you?’ the Angel said, holding up a hand. ‘Surely one among you has the courage to duel me alone, as honour demands. Or has the mettle of the First fallen so low?’
The spitter’s weapon was in his hand. ‘Honour? What right do you, a traitor and an oathbreaker, have to speak to us of honour?’
Oathbreaker? Phoebe flushed with anger. It had to be a lie. She knew the Angel would never break a promise.
The other white-armoured warrior stepped forwards. ‘I will deal with him, if neither of you wants to sully your blade.’ He looked at the giant with the glowing skull, who slowly nodded.
The warrior drew his sword. It appeared to be made of metal, but when he thumbed a gemstone on the hilt the blade glowed blue and whined like a feverbug. Phoebe gasped. This was sorcery, surely. She had forgotten her own fear and now all her thoughts were for the Angel. He looked smaller than the newcomers, and his armour was battered and pitted with rust. But he appeared undaunted. He brought up his toothed sword and it roared as if suddenly alive, the teeth whirring around it.
‘You will find, I think, that the mettle of the First is as fine as it ever was,’ said the other angel – for that, surely, was what the newcomers were.
When the warriors came together, they moved so quickly Phoebe’s eyes could barely follow. Blue blade met whirring teeth with a clash so loud her hands went to her ears. They parted and then crashed together again. Teeth flew from the Angel’s weapon as the pair traded blows, grunting and yelling, their huge armoured feet gouging the jungle floor. They parted again and stood eyeing each other, panting. Then they came together again – but this time the glowing sword of the white-armoured angel sheared clean through her angel’s many-toothed sword. Half of it flew through the air to land near Phoebe. A gasp escaped her mouth. The Angel, unable to fight on with only half a weapon, fell to his knees. He dropped the hilt of his ruined weapon and it lay smouldering in the leaves.
Now the tip of the glowing blue sword was at the Angel’s throat. ‘Bind him,’ the skull said. The spitter moved forward with a pair of linked bracelets.
Phoebe knew she had to do something. The Angel had done so much to help them – now it was her turn to help him. But what could she do? A stout stick under the sawthorn bush caught her eye. She knew she could not fight the angels, but if she could distract them…
It was time to be brave again. Brave like the Angel. She snatched up the stick and dashed out from behind her cover, screaming out the warcry of her village. The angel with the skull head moved faster than she’d thought possible – had he known she was there the whole time? Before she could react he had snatched her up, gripping her whole head in one huge hand, and lifted her to meet his eyes. She met his red gaze and bared her teeth. ‘You leave him alone!’
The skull turned to face the Angel. ‘How many?’ he said.
But the Angel spoke only to her. ‘Little one. Why didn’t you go with the others?’ His voice was heavy with sadness. Phoebe stopped wriggling, a cold feeling soaking into her limbs.
‘How many innocents on this world have you tainted?’ the skull said. ‘How many must we cleanse?’ As he spoke his fingers squeezed Phoebe’s head and she yelled out in pain.
‘He hasn’t done anything to us!’ she squealed. ‘He protects us. He was sent by the King-in-the-Stars to protect us.’
‘The village, Brother-Chaplain,’ said the spitter, tilting his head in the direction of Phoebe’s home. Smoke from the village cooking fires wound skywards.
Phoebe knew then that she had done something wrong, though she didn’t know what it was.
She heard the Angel breathe, ‘No.’
Then the skull squeezed.
About the Author
Jack is from New Zealand and enjoys painting grey plastic and stumbling around in the grimdark.