The hunter found those snowy wings instead.
“No!” She squirmed against the weight of his sacrifice as he shielded her, his wings stretched over her in a red-stained white veil.
No, the possessed hunter couldn’t even look away as his sword clashed down repeatedly. The angel persisted. No…the hunter tired, his prey gasped, the loosed white feathers settled in mud. His head fell upon the crook of her neck, deep eyes clouded, haggard.
“Ma!” The child’s call tripled the nightmare.
No, he screamed, but the blade hacked away his control. He saw the little one with wings like his mother’s, features like his father’s, eyes like wrath’s, launched itself at him with skills impressive for its age but only enough for a quick exchange before it was crushed into the tree.
The distraction dislocated, the sprite ripped the father from his beloved, twisted and snapped a midnight wing to immobilize her opposition. He dragged the angel onto his knees by a fistful of hair and sneered, This is no angel, the sprite told the hunter, look, he’s already healing again. Do you think he would still forgive you? Then all the sudden the sprite was gone, the hunter returned to his earthly core and the cries of the mother, the gasps of the father, and the wails of their child became so close. He realized the egret wings hung lame, framing its owner’s mangled back, weak hands hanging onto his own so their owner’s weight wouldn’t tear out his scalp. He heard the whispers, words addressing the edge pressed against the man’s throat as he faced his family.
He followed the paths of the cloudy eyes to the boy, who freed an arm from agony and reached, “Ba…ba…”
It was too late, even when the mother crawled to her child and pulled him under her wings the boy watched the blade sing through flesh, world red then dark then blurred then deaf then falsely safe under the nightsky of his mother’s plumes, maimed by the image burnt into his mind, into his eyes.
The hunter watched yet another headless corpse slump to the earth, his grasp around heaven loosened and the head rolled and he told himself, “I had to…I had to,” Yet those sky deep eyes hovered before him still. “I had to…he would’ve…”
As he stepped forward: the splash surprised him. The leveled green glass stairs now dimmed by the angel’s blood. He trudged to the widow, the fatherless, blaming the sword until he met those piercing eyes.
“Do it,” She commanded him with steel. “You’ve already done the worst.” The last note shivered, not nearly with the tremor that plagued the child whose eyes glared into nothing but the scene that replayed again and again.
He was delirious, laughing at his patheticness and denying himself salvation when he raised the blade again, though it was too heavy, and his hand trembled, “You…are just beasts,” he repeated the Empire’s rhetoric. “Pests to the Empire…”
“Then what does that make you?” Was the voice the woman’s or the wind’s?
The breeze turned into a howl, a screech, a shrill cry, that he realized was not just the embodiment of his guilt but a new shadow circling the tree, solidifying into a beast larger than a draft horse, taloned, horned, winged, scaled: a greedy mix abominable, the force of its landing on its fours sent him tumbling out of the shadow of the old tree.
The new threat and pain numbed him temporarily from remorse, giving him just enough time to duck and parry a slash that gutted a tree beside him in a single scratch. It gashed his arm, and he clamped a hand over the rivulets while the beast darted back to the base of the tree, nudged at the woman with its feathered head, fearsome amber eyes’ narrow black slit became rounded disks with the pettiness of a lap dog. He could’ve ran away, call off his men, but instead the sprite returned and named the beast’s loyalty its downfall.
He fought through the winds casted by the thing’s powerful wings while the woman carefully mounted the monster with her son, and he was so close to the clumsy monster he could see the whites dotting its brown, powerful wings. Without a thought the sword found a spot and tore.
The beast stretched its pierced wing despite injury, reared, disarmed him and crashed its talons at him again before pushing against the floor and leaping off, a jagged flight impossible, into the blood red sky.
He deserved to be left there in the puddles, mauled by a beast with more morals than himself, yet his men found him, saved him, and his cowardice made him accept the sums and praise long after they left the burning village.
When the Emperor offered to give him the sword he nearly yelled his rejection, but contained himself, “Your Majesty, it is too heavy of a gift.”
“Oh, but I thought you yielded it quite splendidly,” He saw the grin in the reflection of the marble of the palace as he continued his rightful prostration and knew that the sprite was not a mere spirit from the sword, but from its giver. “What a shame.”
He remembered the skin tore off by his nails as he buried his shame in a fist when Emperor Luctus shooed him away, again.
He woke to his old age still clutching his hands, but now about a teacup, ceramic and chipped. He was right: it was empty, the tea leaves still choked, for he had yet to pour the pot of boiling water seething with rage.
Does he have a right to avoid? He seized the pot and poured the water into his cup and watched it all unfurl again, starting with the grey, crying sky. And, as the leaves relaxed a green mirror stared back.