The fire crackled and popped filling the silence of the cool, desert evening. Asbeel and Harut retired to their tents, leaving Athena and Twi’el alone to make conversation. Off in the distance, Twi’el could see the city of Aaru. It was so different from the gothic and gaudy styling of the Kingdom...or New Eden, as he now had to begrudgingly call it. For starters, there were very few tall buildings. There was a central palace, where the mysterious Amun-Ra took residence, but even that paled in comparison to the buildings that once housed the seven Archangels. Rooftops were mostly flat, and the architecture was rather bland, favoring practicality over design. Strange and tall trees, with large, wide, and jagged leaves dotted the land. The one thing the city had in common with the Kingdom was a protective wall bordering the city along with scores of guards patrolling the exterior. It was clear this was a city that was prepared for war.
“Are they welcoming to outsiders?” Twi’el asked Athena, finally breaking the silence. She had been acting rather cold and distant since they started the journey to Aaru, more so than usual. Twi’el examined her facial expressions. She was an older angel, but still stunningly beautiful. Her hair was a dark brunette color. It was long, yet she always had it pulled up into a bun. Long hair was a detriment in combat. It made for an easy target in a battle of life or death. Her dark green eyes were striking, almost mesmerizing. They were the eyes of a hunter, sharp, always darting around, scanning the environment around her. She always sat upright with good posture, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Her bow was never out of reach, and her dagger was always ready. It did not take Twi’el long to discern that Athena never let her guard down. It was the mark of a true warrior, and he could appreciate the paranoia.
“Doubtful. Amun-Ra has become more paranoid over the past few decades.” she stated.
“What happened here, Athena?” Twi’el asked rather bluntly.
Athena looked up from the fire and gazed out to the city. It seemed like she desperately desired to talk but could not find the words to speak with. Twi’el knew the look well. Guilt is an easy thing to sniff out to the guilty.
“I killed.” Twi’el spoke up. “I killed those that did not deserve my blade. I killed your people.” Twi’el said as he stared deeper into the fire, thinking back to the slaughter at Olympus. “Yet, you still brought me out here with you. You gave me my chance at redemption. At first, I wondered why you would do that. I would have left me rotting in that dungeon.”
“Our enemy is dangerous, and we are in short supply of warriors.” she bluntly stated, trying to cut him off.
“No, it’s not that simple. I’m your redemption project. You believe you can save me…and in a way, save yourself. What happened here, Athena?” Twi’el reiterated.
He observed the cold warrior sitting in front of him. Her eyes were noticeably glistening, almost as if she was holding back tears. He was unsure whether it was from the fire, or her reflecting on the past.
“I killed someone here.” she finally muttered after several awkward moments of silence had passed.
“You’ve killed before. Why is this one so special?” he continued to push.
“I only kill when I have to these days. She was underserving of my dagger.” Athena whispered, still trying to be cryptic.
“Will your presence endanger our mission?” Twi’el asked.
“No, there were no witnesses.”
“I won’t push for more detail. We both have our demons to work through.” he said, as he reflected on his old mentor.
Athena was just as observant as Twi’el. He had a specific look of shame about him whenever he thought of Seraphiel, the father figure he killed in the name of the Archangels.
“You know, he was ok with dying.” Athena said, trying to shift the conversation off herself. She spent some time with Seraphiel in the days leading up to the Battle of the Kingdom. Despite their difficult history with one another, Athena quickly grew to respect him during that time.
“I know.” Twi’el stated. “He did not fear death. The bastard was smiling as I killed him.”
Athena chuckled at the thought.
“Why is that funny to you?” Twi’el angrily asked.
“Because, he found a way to screw with you, even in death.” she laughed again.
Twi’el couldn’t help but let out a chuckle himself. “I suppose you’re right. No one could get into an opponent’s head better than he could. It was one of the lessons he always tried to impose upon me.”
Athena sighed as she prepared to give out advice she was hardly qualified to give. “Twi’el, you were brainwashed by monsters. Your entire life’s purpose was in service to the Archangels. Very few angels from the Kingdom can claim to have clean hands. You just happened to be a competent soldier, so of course you got more blood on yours.”
“I can rationalize it well enough. Doesn’t mean I can forgive myself. Those were my choices to make.” Twi’el solemnly stated.
“Then that makes two of us.” Athena said, as the fire began to die down.
Twi’el stoked the flames and added some wood to keep the fire going a little longer. Athena was the only one who understood him. Truthfully, she was the only one who cared to understand him. Harut made it clear that he would never forgive him, and while Asbeel put up an indifferent front, Twi’el could sense the resentment underneath his seemingly neutral exterior. This one on one time with Athena was the only time he felt comfortable speaking freely.
“So, tell me more of this city. What should we expect?” Twi’el asked.
“Expect paranoia. They are not fond of outsiders, but they will welcome us, considering we have information about who slaughtered the settlement. Though they were outcasts, they were still considered members of Aaru society. Amun-Ra is likely eager to learn more, and I would not be surprised if he holds Duat responsible.” Athena explained.
“It’s another city nearby…nasty place. I’d like to avoid it. Amun-Ra may be paranoid, but he is reasonable. Duat’s leader is a maniac. We don’t want to cross paths with him.”
“What type of maniac are we talking about?”
“The type obsessed with death. They call him Anubis.”
“How have I never heard of these places?” Twi’el asked.
Athena smiled, “The Kingdom sheltered you from other ways of life. There is a lot you could stand to see.”
“Indeed…I take it there is tension between the cities?” Twi’el asked.
“Aren’t you an observant one.” Athena sarcastically answered. “There is indeed some interesting history. There are two ancient angels who splintered from the ones you know, long before the Great War. I’m not sure of the nature of their gripe with the other ancient angels, but they abandoned the old Kingdom and made their way far out west with their following. Together, they built the city of Aaru, and together, they ruled as partners. Though they initially saw eye to eye, their philosophy on power and societal hierarchies drastically diverged over time. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, Amun-Ra was one of the ancients, and Anubis was the other.”
“I assume there was a war then?” Twi’el mused.
“No.” Athena said as she continued her history lesson. “Though they grew to despise one another, there was enough mutual respect that they agreed to settle their differences without bloodshed. The supporters of Anubis and the supporters of Amun-Ra competed in a tournament of games to determine who would be banished from Aaru. Anubis lost, and he and his followers left peacefully to establish the city of Duat.”
“That’s anti-climatic.” Twi’el stated.
“Not every conflict must end in bloodshed.” she said, almost as if she was speaking to herself. “The two cities have maintained a strained, but peaceful alliance. They trade supplies, information, and hold ceremonial games every few years to let their aggression out.”
“Why would Amun-Ra hold Duat accountable for the slaughter of the settlement if they are at peace?” Twi’el asked, confused by this revelation.
“Though the two cities maintain peaceful alliances on the surface, each has certain members always plotting to undermine the other. Information wars, covert assassinations, sabotage… all part of a hidden front in an unofficial war that has been ongoing for thousands of years. Neither city will risk directly striking the other, but each one is always vying for the upper hand.”
“Interesting.” Twi’el stated. “Reminds me of all the petty squabbling between higher-ups in the Kingdom.”
“The politics of power never changes. Only the players do.” she said in agreement with Twi’el’s observation. “We will not be getting involved. Our task is the primordial.”
“Curious why a being so powerful remains hidden after all this time.” he wondered aloud.
“Indeed.” she replied, ending the conversation.
For the rest of the night, the two of them sat in silence as the fire slowly died. Athena eventually retired to her tent to lay next to Asbeel. She encouraged Twi’el to get rest for the busy day ahead. He gave a her a polite smile, promising he would sleep soon. The truth was, he feared sleeping. It invited the nightmares. Some nights he would dream of the woman he executed in the Kingdom, or the pools of blood he left behind in Olympus. Some nights he would dream that he was having a conversation with Seraphiel, only to wake up and remember he was gone. It was the dreams about the primordial that scared him the most, though. He was the only one to witness the power of that thing firsthand. It tore apart four Archangels with little effort, and just when he believed himself to be the next victim, it just up and disappeared with a simple warning.
“Your day of reckoning is nearing.”
Simple and ominous. This was a being powerful enough to kill four of the most powerful angels Twi’el had known to exist. What could he hope to accomplish with these three common angels if they came face to face with this Surtr? It seemed like they were marching towards an early grave. Perhaps, that was the justice that Twi’el deserved…justice for killing the defenseless. How did he allow himself to fall so far, so quickly? In a matter of weeks, he went from a principled soldier to an enabler of mass murder, able to shut off all feeling and emotion. Maybe it was universe’s way of paying him back for the atrocities he committed. Perhaps he was meant to die, to pay for what he did.
The fire finally died, leaving him alone in the cold darkness of the desert. He hated being alone with his thoughts. He often found himself running his fingers across the stump where his other hand used to be. It was another constant reminder of the past. Harut was right…Twi’el was a monster. There was no forgiveness waiting for him, and he deserved no such thing.
All he could do now was embrace the monster that he was and put it to use for the right cause.