XXII.

The woman met his challenge, switching her weapon to her unscathed hand, parrying his blow with expertise he never encountered even with the Empire’s finest swordsman. She almost broke his defense, drawing a thin line across his cheek that would have claimed his head had he not forcefully pushed her back. It was truly impressive, and the motion of her defeat all the more rewarding. And, when he studied her peerless techniques he saw the sliver of flaw: her stance, so balanced that even the roots were flat earth beneath her, shied away from perfection for her unborn child weighed against her hips and tugged at her, made her reluctant.

Though he could hardly call it a flaw since it is hard to bear the idea of taking life when you bear life.

He dove in then, sweeping for her feet and abruptly turned the blade upward, and she drew away, surprised by yet another snap in the arc of his blade drew up towards her throat. She leaped backward too late as he followed and pierced her chest, pinning her into the old tree, flesh and bark and metal. Her sword struck the earth in a hollow thud.

Her screech was horrible, beseeching the children to run, her blood painting his conscious.

“Please…I have another child…”

He wrenched his blade free, and agony doubled her over while her broken hand aimed to staunch blood, groveled to a fate unseen. He wanted it over quickly, so raised the executioner’s blade.

Then the air split and he sensed the burst of energy before he saw it, leaping away a split second too late as the earth where he stood splintered and caved. When he gathered his wavering conscience from the mud he detected broken bones, but winced through it to look up. By her side a new figure emerged. He recalled seeing those wings upon a snowy egret, but never in such a way: as the woman’s wings were the night these were pearls, and their owner matched the woman’s grace. He stooped beside his companion, a hand covering her wounds with his whispered spells that retracted the scarlet, calmed her frantic gasps, shadowing her with his egret wings.

He noted how her wild looks contrasted so beautifully against the snowy plumage, the curve of her neck so elegant as she pressed into her mate, her brows wrinkled in pain, and her wings drawn about herself. She was whimpering into him, begging him to fly away without her, to forget their village even though she never could, to live in her place.

The hunter’s world spun in agony, a hand clawed into the earth in desperation. He didn’t see the man smooth out his beloved’s brows with kisses, didn’t see how he rested his head against hers and assured that all will be fine, and told her to wait; he only heard the light steps airy when it neared, saw the shadow passing over himself, then heard the gentle voice.

“What is your name?”

He didn’t expect himself to be worthy of an interview.

“Be at ease,” The angel reassured him, and a warmth soothing unlike the cackling flames in the near distance overcame him.

He thought it was merciful death that stopped the throbbing, cleared the world, but the angel smiled.

He was unbelieving, “Why…I…I hurt…killed…”

“Not on your own accord,” He looked up into those eyes that were skies and the depth of forgiveness was infuriating until he saw in them the realm he wanted. “You carried on a hatred pressed onto you against your will.”

He saw in those eyes a young girl, his girl, chuckling “papa,” making him so incapable of bearing the world a thread of ill will, but he only found out that the world has a tapestry of ill wills against him, smothering him when those bandits came, screeching, tearing…

…as he teared now, dissembled, drained, “I am sorry…I am sorry…”

How did his apologies mutate into this? How did his hands, grounded in earth become washed with red again? The pearly white mangled scarlet.

Why? The Emperor’s sword took his soul and pushed him away, springing off the earth and sliced the healing hand, eating flesh.  A choked whisper, gasps, and the angel tugged against the blade lodged in his chest. No, the hunter hated his hands for twisting the blade free, the spray of scarlet marred white wings and the woman screeched a name he didn’t catch, fought against her frailty and gravity that kept her down.

No, no, he didn’t want to aim for that stumbled woman, deafened by roars of the contract the blade drummed into his ears, leave not a single feather. To his surprise brute strength hid beneath heavenly facades, and the man seized him from behind, wrangling at his arms, persisting despite the gash in his chest, blood’s warmth seeped into the back of the hunter’s armor. He guessed by the frantic flutters of the angel’s wings that he wanted to drag him into the air, but the sprite from the sword and his wound made the human too heavy of a burden.

Fly, run!” The angel let out a yell towards his mate, and she struggled to get up, but failed and fell against the tree instead.

He wanted to break free from the tendrils the sprite trapped him in, but he could only scream, deny. No, no, he felt the winged weaken, and finally he threw him, spinning about in their struggle and cut him, again.

He didn’t know why the devil was so persistent in killing the woman, didn’t know why even when his voice gave way no sound made it to reality as his possessed human vessel went on, leaving the winged one bleeding into the earth, heaving, forcing himself to heal. No…no…he didn’t want to raise a blade against that woman and her unborn child. A shadow passed him and he brought his sword down.

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