Twenty-two years ago.
Braile, Chancellor of the Celestial Army, tucked his wings close to his body and plummeted from the night sky. Wind streamed over his feathers and empyreal armor in a cold caress he would’ve enjoyed if the screams of the dying didn’t spur him on. He banked right, away from the skyscrapers and the city lights, toward the sprawling suburbs, and further still to the tiny farm towns dotting Middle America. Another cry, another fervent prayer tore through his mind.
He usually ignored the screams of the dying. The fragile humans died every second of every day, by the thousands. In their sleep, murdered, diseased, aged, in a myriad of ways, death claimed each one. They were born to die, their time on earth fleeting. Their time in the hereafter either everlasting peace, or eternal damnation.
And never had he heard a single prayer.
That wasn’t his job. He wasn’t a comfort angel who saw to the disposition of souls or a reaper who harvested souls. At the pinnacle of the warrior class, Braile was charged with leading those who defended the realm against Demoni Lords and their Darkling minions. Legions of angels obeyed his command; nevertheless, he homed in on his target, summoned because he could not ignore the prayers. Those demanded his answer. Because she said his name, and no other. A human female cried out to him.
Why now after eons of silence had he received prayers?
Seconds from crashing, his wings snapped open and he touched down on a desolate state road stretched between two rural towns.
To his right, an African American male lay at the base of a tree, head partially detached from his body. Ten feet behind the deceased was a mangled car, metal pieces scattered everywhere. Braile went to neither. He stood in the middle of the road, unswayed. The dead wasn’t the one who called to him.
Sulfur polluted the air. A Darkling trap. Cautious, he studied the woods on either side of the road, his hand rested on the hilt of his empyreal sword. He’d existed too long to be anything but cautious.
Nothing came from the trees, except the chirping of birds and the rustle of leaves.
The vehicle lay on its side. Smoke curled from the engine and fuel dripped from the ruptured fuel tank. Glass crunched beneath his boot and he stopped. He walked around the wish-boned front bumper to see a shattered windshield. More glass on the inside than the outside, he noted. No blood on the glass or the hood of the car. He moved to the male. The slice to the neck was clean, precise, not the act of traveling through a windshield and smashing into a tree. Something else had caused his death.
A trail of blood led from the car, across the road, and into the grass. Two feet more and it disappeared into the trees. An injured, bleeding female would only choose this tactic if she was chased and had no other option.
Braile freed his sword. Instead of flight, he employed his incredible speed to weave through the trees. He kept his wings tucked tight to his body, and followed the blood, the trail widening. At some point, the human must have fallen and dragged her body deeper into the woods.
He came across the body in a shallow ravine a quarter mile in—and a trio of Darklings fighting over the corpse. Their inky, vaporous forms writhed against each other. Instead of fleeing, they charged as if they had a chance of defeating an archangel.
Two swipes of his empyreal blade and two of the Darklings dissolved. The other crashed into Braile, claws sprouting from the now solid body. The momentum carried them into a tree. Braile brought his blade between them and cut the Darkling in half. Black ash exploded all over him and everything else. It sprinkled the ground and coated the nearest trees. The morning sun would burn all evidence of their existence away.
His grace thrummed beneath his skin, exhilarated by the encounter. Long had it been since he engaged in battle. Too long, by the slice across his forearm. Grace welled in the inch-long opening. He flexed his will to close the wound when a faint heartbeat captured his attention. Braile spun, his attention focused on the body. Partially covered by leaves and dirt, he couldn’t see all of her.
A strong breeze whistled through the trees. Autumn leaves kicked up and fluttered away like birds taking flight, revealing a blonde Caucasian female. Her back flayed, her arms covered her abdomen, while the rest of her was exposed, vulnerable. There was only one reason a female did that.
Without another thought, he used his power to rotate her body. Flat on her back, her round belly proclaimed her condition. Her dress was bunched up around her waist, her legs splayed and bloody.
So much blood.
She had taken a brutal beating. Aggressive slashes crisscrossed the length of her side and face. Along with bite marks. Chances were his presence interrupted their feeding, nevertheless the Darklings had achieved their objective. The female was dead.
But again came the flutter of a heartbeat and a whispered plea.
Everything happens for a reason. The motto originated in Heaven. A motto angels lived by. It was the only way to tolerate their immortality. They didn’t question why they existed. There was good. There was evil. Right versus wrong. Demoni versus angels. There was a reason he heard those prayers, those cries for help. They were not from the female, the mother.
They were from the babe.
Braile rushed to the woman’s side. His touch reverent as he stroked her belly and focused on the soul trapped within her body. A slight movement, another flutter of a heartbeat…then silence.
With a twist of his wrist, his sword shortened to the length of a knife. He ripped her dress in half and brought the metal to her pale blood-spattered skin. Braile sliced through her skin, tissue, muscles, and gestational sac. Amniotic fluid rushed out and he rushed in. He stuck his hand through the cut and closed his fingers around a tiny body.
So small. Little arms and legs, a round little belly, and a pinched, wrinkled face, the perfectly formed baby girl fit in the palm of his hand. Her life had ended long before it was due to begin. Yet, he heard her prayers, prayers to save her mother, and by extent, herself.
And he failed her.
He saved humanity an infinite amount of times, not because anyone had prayed to him, but because duty demanded it. The one time someone had prayed to him, and he’d failed.
The cut on his arm throbbed in answer to the unspoken fix it storming his brain. He could revive her. It was within his power as an archangel. He’d never done it before. He had not the inclination. Now…
He laid the premature infant on the ground. He focused his power and split the center of her chest open. Next, he placed his cut forearm over her acorn-sized heart and willed his grace to leave his body. One drop. Two drops. Three drops, until it flowed out of him and bathed her organs. Her tiny heart sputtered. Her minuscule lungs fluttered. Then her heart took off at a gallop and her lungs expanded and contracted. Exultation filled him. Never had he been more grateful for what Father had made him to be.
“What have you done!”
Blade in hand, Braile whipped around and faced Michael, First Seraphim to Father. Consumed with his actions, Braile had left himself completely vulnerable to attack. If Michael had been a Darkling, Braile, Chancellor of the Celestial Army, would have perished.
“Braile!” Michael shouted as if Braile had lost the ability to hear.
Still crouched, he shifted his body to shield the infant from Michael as her chest knit together. “Why are you here, when you should be guarding Father?”
“It was Father who sent me,” Michael hissed. A stiff breeze ruffled his white and gold tri-level wings.
Michael’s statement shocked Braile. Father had withdrawn from all of them since Metatron’s betrayal. He kept the infant behind his back and faced Michael. “Why?”
Michael snorted, then snarled, “Do you suppose I stopped and questioned Him? He commanded and I obeyed, though I did wonder what possible aid the staid Braile could need. Now I understand.” He moved closer. “Have I come in time to stop your insanity?”
A hesitant half cry, half grunt came from behind Braile in answer to Michael’s question. Michael stormed forward as Braile brought the squirming infant to his chest. “Hush, female.”
Her movement ceased and her eyes opened at his touch to her now rosy cheeks. Forbidden intelligence swirled in their leafy green depths.
No. Not just green. Gold zigzagged through the irises and pupils, much like the gold encircling his pupils, proof of his connection to the divine. He should be horrified, instead, Braile was pleased. She lived, her skin a soft tan, the fuzz on her head straddled the line between brown and blond.
“Infants that young do not survive outside of the womb.” Michael peered at the premature female, his blade in his hand, but lowered.
Braile took a measured breath. The tremendous weight of his actions settled on his shoulders. “You are correct…and she did not survive.”
Michael jerked as if slapped. “Damnation! Which makes your actions exponentially worse. Do you realize what you have done?” he asked again.
Brailed nodded. “I saved a life. I seem to recall that is our purpose. To save human lives.”
Michael grabbed his arm. “From the Darklings and Demoni Lords, not from death. This infant was not supposed to be born.”
“Then why did I hear her prayers? Why did she call my name?”
“Blasphemy!” Michael hissed in a low whisper. The tip of his sword tilted upward.
Braile’s free hand tightened on his blade. Yes, it was most blasphemous. He jerked away from Michael, creating distance to engage, if necessary. Except… “Why did Father send you? What were His exact words? Did he order you to stop me, or be witness?”
Michael paused, frustration twisting his harsh features. A breeze generated by his anger kicked up and circled them. “His exact words were ‘Assist Braile’.”
Braile grinned, triumphant. “He placed you, Seraph, at my disposal.”
“You find humor in your impending death?” Michael folded his arms over his chest.
Braile sobered. There was the truth he’d avoided dwelling on. “Hold her for me.” He passed the babe to the seraphim. Michael jumped back as if the infant was a Darkling. Then with the utmost care, he gathered the babe in his palm.
Braile cut a swath from his crimson cloak and a bloody piece from the mother’s daisy print dress. He sheathed his sword and swaddled the infant with his cloak. The bloody print, he tucked into the side. Michael stared at the mesmerizing infant, transfixed. His hold tightened briefly before he relinquished her to Braile’s care. “What now?” Michael said, his voice gruff.
“We cannot leave her here to be found.” Braile snapped his wings open and took to the skies. He headed for the nearest city, forty miles away.
He landed a few moments later, invisible to all the humans walking in and out of the hospital. Michael was beside him, somber and silent. Together, they moved to an unoccupied bench. This was the perfect place to leave the infant. She would be found within seconds of their departure. The blood on her mother’s dress would lead the authorities to discover her parents’ identities. So why couldn’t he let her go and walk away? He had to. The sharp edge of Michael’s blade awaited. He wasn’t afraid for his life to end. All things must end.
Yet he held her closer. Inhaled, pulling her unique scent inside of him.
Michael whispered, “Name her. It is your right, even though the humans will give her another.”
A fine rain began to fall and the name came to him. “Amaya.”
“How appropriate. It means night rain. It is a good name.”
Braile laid her on the bench, his touch lingering until he forced himself to take that first step away. A couple walked past the bench and kept going. Michael touched Braile’s arm. “Release her.”
He complied because he had no choice. All this time, she never cried. Now, she screamed, as if tortured. Her little arms and legs flaying, fighting an imaginary foe. The couple stopped, and wheeled around. The female ran back to the bench. She snatched Amaya up and took a quick glance around, then ran into the hospital.
Braile kneeled and bowed his head, his gaze focused on the withered grass beneath his knees. His mind focused on Amaya. What would happen to her? What would she become? The power he’d gifted her was enormous. She had to be protected, guided lest she go astray and become more than the abomination she already was. Even so, in these final moments, he had no regrets.
He had created something. Something special. Pride filled him. This had to be what humans felt when they gazed upon their offspring, an all-consuming love for someone other than themselves. And now he would leave her.
“Give me your oath you will see to her welfare,” he said to Michael.
Braile looked over his shoulder. Michael had his blade raised, poised to strike. Duty was duty and had to come first. His countenance wasn’t one of resignation or fury. After all, Braile had thrown his life away for something Michael and all of Heaven deemed unpardonable. He’d broken a tenet. His death was the price for her life. The die was cast the instant she took her first grace-aided breath. Except, for once, in all the time Braile had known Michael, his normally harsh features were hopeful.
Michael lowered his sword and his mouth twisted into a mockery of a grin. “Your death will not be a punishment, but a service to all. With your grace, you saved what wasn’t meant to be born. With the rest of your grace—at the appointed time—you will save all of humanity.”