Though they had been driving for several hours, the congregation’s progress was not far. Repeatedly they had to exit their vehicles to move broken-down cars in the road, and two of those times they had been assaulted by a spray of gunfire from the mists.
Aras had grown irate—the actions of the New Chictawgwans only served as a reminder of his mission, a dark reflection of the Hell-hole Chictawga had been even before the Great Flood. With War filling men with rage-clouded minds in the streets, his brother Death was the city’s longest-standing guest and most bountiful beneficiary. On both occasions, Aras had entered the fog and ended the ambushes, the gang members’ cries emanating eerily from the fog.
And each time he returned to the convoy, his greeting was more icy and reserved.
It reached the point that Aras and Mitch were traveling in heavy silence—Mitch too worried to break the stillness, and Aras preferring the quiet and strumming his fingers on the top of his steering wheel in time to a solemn tune only he heard.
It was nearing nighttime when their vehicles finally stopped, and someone up ahead yelled out in triumph. Before the mass of cars and trucks, was the concrete wall that marked the eastern outskirts of Chictawga. Just beyond was the road from the city.
Aras kicked his door open and leapt from the Jeep, rushing to the front of the convoy. The closer he got, however, the more his heart sank. While the others, who were exiting their vehicles quickly, could not hear the low noise, Aras with keen perception could hear the roar of rushing water. He rushed to the wall, and peered over with a growing sense of dread.
And saw, to his horror, a deep river just on the other side, with no highway in sight.
“No . . .” Aras found himself saying aloud, silencing the cheers of those nearest him. He brought a hand up through his black hair, and though his visage may have led to believe otherwise, it came back dry of sweat. Indeed, Aras had never known what it was like to sweat.
“My apologies, Aras,” came a voice from the south, and Aras quickly turned to face the speaker.
Karen, his long, fine auburn hair catching on the low winds, knelt balanced on the concrete wall several yards to Aras’s left. His gold-flaked cerulean eyes stared into Aras, and his pearly teeth broke through the gloom of weather with soft luminance. His shirt discarded, Karen showed a body sharpened by millennia of warfare, muscles honed to their fighting edge. From his back sprouted the magnificent wings of a golden eagle, curled back and folded down at that moment.
“What is this?”
“A change of plans, Aras. New orders regarding this flock.”
“They’re to be saved from the floods!”
Karen narrowed his eyes, though their gleam remained. He so enjoyed when Aras was wrong. “As I said: a change of plans. This murderous city and its inhabitants are to be purified, their souls sorted my His hands alone.”
“These people don’t deserve to be killed!”
“A blessed afterlife awaits the faithful,” Karen sighed as he slipped down from the wall to stand on the concrete stretch of road just opposite Aras. “Yours, however, is a different matter altogether.”
Aras eyed him for a moment, unsure as to warrior’s meaning.
“You murdered, Aras. You culled from His flock.”
Aras’s heart sank, and his words seemed pathetic indeed when the realization struck him; “in self . . . defense . . .”
“Those of His hand requiring self-defense? Truly, you’ve always been amusing. We do not kill without His blessing—a blessing you did not have.”
Aras simply stood, lost for words. He had killed, and killed without considering the possible implications. Perhaps the evils of the city had clouded his mind, as the fog had clouded the murderous streets? He hardly time to think, however, before a great weight slammed into his back and had him pinned on the ground. A single booted foot rested upon Aras’s prone form, and screams issued from the human onlookers.
Ariel shrugged his shoulders, his large blue-feathered wings fanned out behind him. The powerful being focused his thoughts, and soon Aras was crying out as the back of his shirt lit with white flames and burned to ashes on his bare skin. No sooner had the clothing been destroyed, however, did a pair of jet-black raven wings materialize on Aras’s shoulders.
Karen watched with supreme amusement, but knew his next job too critical to be distracted. He closed his eyes, and the sound of rushing water somewhere on the other side of the city suddenly had the ground in tremors. People rushed back into their vehicles—some emerged moments later, leveling rifles and taking shots at Karen and Ariel. Their bullets did nothing to distract either being, however, and soon they retreating into their trucks and cars once more.
Aras struggled; knowing what was coming and sensing who was doing it.
“Why, Ariel? Why now?”
“You are my brother, Aras,” Ariel stated darkly, “and I shall remember you for the greatness once inspired. But as of now, His orders are to be carried . . . no matter my own convictions.”
Ariel reached down, his sand-colored hands wrapping around the base of Aras’s black wings. There was a moment that they both seemed to share, time stopping around them as they made peace with what was to come.
And Ariel tore the wings from Aras’s shoulders.
Pain such that Aras had never before felt coursed through him, as though eternity itself and any semblance of life he had carried before were suddenly torn through his back with the black-feathered wings. He writhed under the solid foot of Ariel, ichor pouring from the vicious wounds before gradually shifting to crimson. Ichor turned to blood, and Aras’s life essence poured onto the empty streets that marked the exit of Chictawga, the doomed city, of New Chictawga, the banner of violence.
And then Aras died; a mortal on the unforgiving asphalt.