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  • Jonathan Shuerger

The Flight of the Guardian (Fiction, Finale)


I rose from Zeal’s prone body and assessed the new arrivals. Ten gargantuan dark angels stood before me with lowered spears in their fists. Their Corinthian helms highlighted the fierce light in their eyes, and their bodies were draped in full, rich cloaks of scarlet. Their burning swords were belted at their waists, ready to be drawn at a moment’s notice. They were an elite guard, selected from the ranks of the Fallen to be the chosen bodyguards of mighty demons.


And they guarded a mighty demon, indeed; nothing less than another Prince of Darkness. Daemos, Prince of Grecia, stood behind his servants’ spears, head inclined toward Zeal in deference to his higher position. He wore a black sleeveless robe open at the chest and belted with a rope at his waist, as well as a gold chain around his neck and an iron crown on his head. While Zeal was known for his use of overwhelming, vicious attacks, Daemos was a cunning creature, preferring to win the battle before it was ever fought.


His voice was deep and powerful, yet cultured and wise. “I trust that I have not arrived too late, my lord?”


Zeal pushed himself up from the ground and shook his wings to clear the dirt from them. “Not at all, Daemos; you came when you were expected, as all servants should.”


For an instant, I saw Daemos’ jaw clench before he tilted his head and answered, “I live to serve, my lord.”


Zeal sneered and said, “Of course you do; that is your place. Remember it well, and I will reward you as such.”


Zeal glanced at me for a moment and said, “Dispose of him.”


Visibly furious at Zeal’s condescension but helpless to act on it, Daemos held up his hand and his bodyguard tensed, ready to spring. My mind worked feverishly, desperate to deliver me from my hopeless position. But there was no way out; my wings quivered with exhaustion and I knew, even had I been in peak condition, that a fight against two Princes of Darkness and their bodyguards was suicidal, at best. I held no fear for my own life; it was the Word of God that I feared for, that had been entrusted to me to deliver.


I could not fail. I must not fail. The Word was all I had left.


My mind stopped. The Word…


Daemos’ hand dropped and ten spears raced toward my throat. With all I had in me, I shouted, “Wait!”


The force of the shout made Daemos’ guards hesitate. Before they could recover, I said, “Daemos, would you know why I am here?”


Spears lifted and I ducked slightly, ready for my last fight.


“Halt.”


The spears hesitated, and all eyes turned to Daemos, who stood with his hand raised once more.


Zeal snapped at him, “I did not command you to halt, Daemos!”


I stared full into Daemos’ burning eyes. I depended on all that I knew of the Fallen at this point: that they vied with one another for power, that they envied those in favor, and that Zeal’s arrogance grated on Daemos’ own pride. Only that and the Word could save me now.


If Daemos allowed me to speak.


Daemos returned my stare, assessing me carefully. Zeal snarled and said, “Daemos, answer when I speak to you, vermin!”


That did it. Daemos turned and glared at his fellow Prince, who stopped short at the venomous look. Daemos’ voice was tight with controlled anger as he said, “My lord Zeal, you appear fatigued from your lengthy conflict. Perhaps you should rest for now, and allow me to interrogate this troublesome loyalist.”


Zeal snorted. “Aram knows nothing of worth; he is the same as he ever was. He—”


Daemos cut him off. “He defeated you in combat and were it not for the intervention of my warriors, would have condemned you to the Pit. If you were wise, my lord, you would listen to what he has to say.”


The implication in Daemos’ words was clear, and Zeal narrowed his eyes at his fellow Prince.


Daemos’ dark gaze turned to me. “And if he knows nothing of worth, as you say, then he will die all the slower for daring to waste my time.”


Not a threat; a promise.


Zeal glanced from me to Daemos and back, then stepped back and said, “As you wish, Daemos. Have your sport with him.”


Daemos inclined his head again, turned to me and commanded, “Speak, angel. Why are you here?”


I stood straighter and said, “I bear the living Word of God to his servants.”


“Impossible,” Zeal laughed in disdain. “You lie, Aram; a pathetic ploy to save your pathetic life.”


After a moment of consideration, Daemos shook his head. “No, he does not lie. I do not know how this came about, but he does not lie.”


He folded his wings behind him and gestured toward me. “Very well, angel. Explain why the Almighty would entrust His words to a Guardian in place of a Messenger.”


His confusion was understandable; it was a direct commandment from the Lord that His Messengers remain untouched by the Fallen, a commandment that they obeyed out of terror.


I shook my head. “I do not know; all I know is that the Lord chose me instead of a Messenger to deliver a vision of the future to his servant Daniel.”


Zeal frowned, and Daemos glanced at him. Zeal nodded and said, “I know the name; he has been the favored servant of the Lord in the palace.”


Daemos turned to me. “We know that what God prophesies will come to pass. What is this vision of the future, angel? What will come in the later days?”


Both Princes leaned forward slightly, and I smiled grimly. I knew that they would not have been able to resist. The demons still recognized the supremacy of the Almighty; but they attempted to work with it for their own ends. Knowledge of the newest revelations would allow them to elevate themselves in the demonic hierarchy, earning them favor from even the Adversary himself.


Right now, their own ambitions would work against them.


I looked Zeal dead in the eye and said, “The Lord has decreed that the time of Persia and her Prince is over.”


Zeal reacted in shock, and I continued, this time regarding Daemos. “It is the will of the Almighty that Grecia overthrow the Persian Empire and assume the role of the most powerful nation on the earth.”

The bodyguards rumbled at that excitedly, but stilled at my next words. “However, if I am unable to deliver my message, then these events may never happen. It is up to you, Daemos, if you will be the right hand of the Dragon…”


I glanced at Zeal, whose eyes were narrowed in a savage glare, and finished, “…or not.”


Daemos did not move, and time seemed to freeze. I could hear my heartbeat in my chest, pounding slowly away. The lesser Fallen shifted the grips on their weapons, ready to attack at the slightest provocation.


After an eternity, Daemos spoke.


“Take him.”


My heart fell, and Zeal grinned and said, “Well done, Daemos. I knew that—”


Daemos cut him off again. “Not the angel.”


With all the rage of a hurricane, Daemos’ elite guard launched into the sky and assaulted Zeal at once, who roared in betrayed fury and fought to defend himself. Even exhausted, he proved a match for the Fallen attacking him.


Daemos glanced at me and commanded, “Deliver your message, angel, and never let me see your face again…or I will carve it off.”


I nodded and took to the skies as the sounds of combat escalated behind me.


***

My conversation with the Lord’s servant has already been recorded by Daniel himself, and I will not repeat that here.


Nearly halfway through the account, I saw a miraculous sight. Michael appeared on one side of the river, and the great Messenger Gabriel stood on the other, listening to every word I said. Michael was cut and bruised, bathed in the steaming blood of demons but alive and victorious. The mere sight of my courageous captain standing tall and soaking in the Word of God sent my spirit soaring.


To Daniel, I told of the rise and fall of nations. I spoke of the political intrigues laid out in impossible detail, of the near future and the far. I spoke of wars, of peace, blasphemy and judgment. Daniel absorbed everything that I said, and even Michael and Gabriel basked in the glow of the Word of God. I could feel my strength returning to me even as I told the tale, and I was reminded of the power of the Almighty’s Words as both my wounds and those of my captain’s began to close and seal without so much as a scar.


Sheer power coursed through my body, and the past twenty-one days felt as though they had never happened. Such is the advantage of the servants of God: to revel and feed from His Word. Such is the sustenance of His warriors.


***

We left Daniel by the river to his writing, and Gabriel turned to Michael, saying, “Your request, Captain.”


“My thanks, Gabriel. But I believe Aram is in more need of it than I.”


Gabriel nodded in understanding, and reached toward me. I glanced at what he held in his hands, and I knew then what the two archangels spoke of.


I was not finished yet.


***

When I found him, Zeal knelt on the ground, gasping for breath. The bodies of the Fallen bodyguards lay strewn around him, rent and broken in his frenzied defense. Even weakened by weeks of fighting, my former brother remained a ferocious adversary.


Gabriel and Michael stood at my shoulders, and Michael asked quietly, “Do you want us to assist you?”


I shook my head. “No, my captain. This charge is mine, and mine alone.”


Michael nodded in understanding, and the two mighty angels stepped back to allow me my task.


I strode toward Zeal with purpose, still feeling the strength of the Word of God coursing through my veins. Zeal, on the other hand, was a wreck of an angelic being; exhausted, wounded, and bleeding from a score of wounds. His mane was matted and twisted, and his burning sword chipped and cracked. He kneeled with his face toward the ground, too weakened to lift his head.


I stood over him and waited.


“So…you came back.”


I glanced about and asked, “Where is Daemos?”


Zeal snorted weakly. “The coward fled. He left his guards to finish me while he went to ‘prepare his kingdom for supremacy.’”


I frowned and answered, “Such is the fate of all traitors…to be betrayed.”


Zeal sighed explosively and lifted his head, his chest heaving. “Spare me your sermonizing, Aram. Run me through and be done with it.”


I shook my head. “No.”


Zeal looked at me. “No?”


“No. I said I would throw you into the Abyss myself and I intend to.”


Faster than lightning, I kicked his sword out of his hand and threw one coil of unbreakable chain around his shoulders.


Zeal’s eyes widened in realization, and he shouted, “Aram, no!


Ignoring his plea, I wrenched my former brother off-balance and hurled him to the ground, binding his leathery wings around him as he thrashed beneath me. Length after length of the archangels’ gift to me wrapped around Zeal’s struggling musculature.


In the end, the demon’s entire body had been restrained with the chain reserved for him, the only fate remaining to the fallen servants of the Almighty. Zeal could do little more than twitch in that implacable chain’s deadly embrace.


In desperation, Zeal cried, “I am your brother, Aram! I am your brother!”


With one hand, I gripped the length of chain just below his throat and jerked him upright so that he faced me. My wings spread behind me and my own eyes ignited with righteous fury as I grated through clenched teeth, “My brother died ages ago, demon, and you killed him.”


With a flash of light, we vanished.


***

I dragged Zeal down the center causeway of Heaven, and angels everywhere halted their tasks at the sight. I strode forward resolutely, shoulders back, head high, wings erect, pulling Zeal’s captive body by the chain. I did not bother meeting the stares of my brethren; all I could see was the column of smoke on the outskirts of the Celestial City.


Zeal strained against his chains, bellowing his defiance and his desperation at the same time. “Do not do this, Aram, you sniveling coward! Unchain me and fight me again! You will see who will triumph this time!”


I did not answer. There was nothing to say.


Zeal continued his maniacal tirade all the way through the Celestial City, out of the gates of pearl and down the causeway. Once we reached the outer highway, however, he fell silent.


Well outside the walls of the Celestial City, the air became noticeably warmer and caustic. A dull roar resounded through the ground and in my chest, emanating from the geysers of billowing black smoke that we approached. The very air shimmered with intense heat, and faint roars and screams could be heard from inside the dark plumes.


Gehenna—the place of eternal suffering created for those who rebelled against the Living God. The Pit. The Abyss. The Valley of Hinnom.


Hell.


I did not slow my step as I approached the edge. The deed was already done in my mind; all that remained was to accomplish it.


Zeal spoke again, earnestly this time as we neared the chasm. “Aram, wait. Think about this.”


“I have, Zeal. Every day, for millennia, I have thought about what I am doing right now.”


I could see him racking his brain for something, anything, to spare him his righteous judgment. I snorted and forced him over to the edge.


“Wait, Aram!”


“No.”


I reached the edge.


“Mercy!”


“There is none.”


I adjusted my grip on his chain and positioned myself for the throw.


“By the brotherhood that we share, I beg you, Aram!”


“You are not my brother.”


There, at the edge of insanity, Zeal shouted, “I will escape, Aram! I will find you, and when I do, I will hang your still-living carcass on the gate of my walls! You will spend the remainder of your pathetic days as a torch to light my path, and all will see you and know that I defeated you, Aram, and your pathetic God! You will fear me, angel! Eternity cannot hold me forever!”


I glanced at him with my burning eyes and my wings flared behind me. “It will hold you long enough.”


With an enormous heave, I snapped my body forward, lunging with the throw. The strain of Zeal’s weight surged through my body, but thousands of years of anger, sorrow, and grief at my brother’s betrayal augmented my strength. No weight was too heavy against that.


With a cry, Zeal hurtled through the air over the Pit. He passed through two towers of black smoke before he began to fall, plummeting like a falling star toward the deepest recesses of the Abyss. I could see him begin to catch fire, and the first of the truly horrible screams began to rip from his throat as his eternity of punishment began.


No one screams like an angel.


My eyes followed him for as long as they could, but eventually, I lost sight of him. I could still hear his tortured screams long after he faded into the blackness.


Forever.


***

I remained at the edge of Gehenna, remembering. It might have been minutes, it might have been days; I do not know. I remember that Michael stood at my shoulder and awarded me the rank of Captain of the Host. I barely responded to the honor.


Nodding slowly, understandingly, Michael left me alone on the edge of the Abyss. He, too, had cast friends into the Abyss.


I stared into the rising columns of flame and darkness. Gehenna’s burning light reflected off of my visage as I beheld the chasm, and the scorched wind whipped my hair and robes while searing me to my bones.


I thought of the time Zeal and I had spent together in the service of the Almighty. Zeal as he had been, could have been, should have been. Zeal, clothed in light, brandishing his sword and declaring for all to hear that nothing would ever sway him from his Lord or fell him in battle.


I thought of myself at his side, and the burning desire that I felt to match Zeal’s boundless dedication and enthusiasm. He had always pushed me, challenged me to be more than just another Guardian, daring me to be more.


And now this.


With my brother’s sentence finally being carried out, I truly felt the sorrow, the wrongness of what had been done, thousands of years ago. It had not been meant to be like this, brother against brother. I recognized that I would only ever feel this sorrow once, because the Almighty had created Hell for all rebels against Him, human or angel, mortal or immortal.


I could feel the sense of betrayal in that scorched wind, because I felt it in my soul now. The Divine felt as I did, only so much more. And I knew that there was only one thing left to say into the wind-blown ash.


“I never knew you.”


I turned my back on the Pit and walked away.

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