Davian stumbled and fell. His knees, chest, and elbows scraped over dirt and rocks while leathery-skinned mornachts dragged him across the ground. Blood matted his hair, and a wing-lock encased his wings, preventing him from flying. He struggled against his chains, ignoring the painful scabs covering his wrists and ankles.
Davian’s thumb instinctively rubbed the fifth finger on his right hand, but his father’s ring was gone. Why did they take it? he wondered. They got what they wanted when they handed me over to the mornachts.
To the east, moonlight glistened off the snowcapped peaks of the Enbed Mountains—a surreal backdrop for the grotesque mornachts with their stooped posture and knobby stubs for wings. Ahead, two lone Morvenian guards stood at attention near the base of a hill. Davian froze. He knew what lay inside the mountain behind the guards.
Davian yanked against the chains once more, binding every ounce of his strength to one goal: escape. A whip cracked, and Davian yelled when its sting penetrated his back. The whip cracked again. And again.
A metallic creak sounded inside the earth. The mountainside opened.
Davian roared and pulled against his chains, reopening the gashes on his wrists. One of the mornachts banged a club against his shins; Davian fell to the ground. The mornachts dragged him inside the mineshaft, beating him until he collapsed in a pool of mud. The cracks of other whips echoed deep inside the shaft, followed by screams, more whips, and then silence. A moment later, Davian heard only water running along the wooden beam above, dripping in a puddle next to him. A cool drop hit his forehead.
“Drink it now, Seraph,” hissed one of the mornachts. “That’s the only water you’ll get in here.”
Davian obeyed, letting a few grimy drops hit his tongue.
The mountain creaked once more. The mornachts cackled and pulled him to his feet, forcing him to watch the door swing shut. The last sliver of moonlight disappeared, and the sound of the door colliding with the mountain thundered through the shafts.
The mornachts yanked Davian’s chains. For the first time since his capture, Davian followed without a struggle. Why should he? The prophecy most cherubians had forgotten was now fulfilled; the evil one had taken over Elysia. Now Davian, locked in a dungeon from which few cherubians ever escaped, wondered how he and Elysia had been so blind.
Chapter One: The Prophecy Forgotten
One week earlier…
Maurice wiped the Treetop Inn’s bar for what felt like the fiftieth time. The lacquered counter already sparkled, but Maurice preferred wiping to gazing across the tavern of empty tables that should have been full of patrons talking or playing jalonga. The usual twinkle in Maurice’s brown eyes had dimmed. Even the smile that once greeted all of his customers—including his least favorite—had disappeared.
A drop of sweat trickled down Maurice’s cheek and into the folds of skin between his chin and neck. He glanced across his tavern and shook his head. Though the sweltering weather kept him from lighting fires in the fireplaces, his Treetop Inn still felt cold. He filled two mugs of honeywine and flew them to two textile merchants who talked quietly in a booth across the way.
Maurice forced a smile. “How are you fellas doin’ this fine day?”
“I’ll be better once the senate votes in favor of a king tomorrow, and the people start buying cloth again,” muttered one of the merchants. He raised his mug to Maurice and gulped his honeywine. The other merchant raised his mug in agreement.
Maurice hid his frown. Scandal after scandal had characterized the late Prime Minister’s term, souring the Elysian people on the democratic process. Most of the senators were now urging a vote to eliminate the office of the Prime Minister and reinstate a monarchy, which they believed would help Elysia win the Tri-Millennial War against their enemies, the mornachts. Although Maurice understood the Senate’s logic, he disagreed with their timing, and he especially disagreed with the Senate’s choice for king.
“People will start buying again,” said Maurice. “With or without a king. It’ll just take time.”
“Ah, but it will take less time if we’ve got a king, and my family needs food,” said the first merchant.
“No argument there,” muttered Maurice. He wished otherwise. “You two call me if you need anything.” He returned to the bar, grabbed his rag, and furiously wiped the counter.
The Treetop’s door swung open, then shut. A brief chill flowed into the tavern. A tall cherubian dressed in white robes and a white cloak flew inside. The cloak’s hood was pulled over his head, hiding everything but his nose and graying goatee.
“Good day, stranger,” Maurice said. He strained to catch a peek at the stranger’s eyes but saw only a shadow. “I assume you’ll be wanting a place to stay tonight.”
“I need no room.” The stranger’s voice rang clear and strong.
Stronger than most cherubians, nowadays, thought Maurice.
The stranger reached inside his cloak and pulled out a scroll. “Seraph Davian will be arriving in less than half-an-hour.” He handed the scroll to Maurice. “Give him this.”
Maurice frowned, caring little for the visitor’s curt tone. How did this stranger know Davian’s comings and goings? “If you’re that sure he’s coming, you might as well wait for him.”
“I’m short on time.” The stranger turned to leave. “Make sure Davian gets that scroll.”
“What’s your name, so I can tell the seraph who this is from?”
The stranger looked over his shoulder at Maurice, and Maurice caught a glimpse of his eyes—bright blue with pupils that resembled a multi-pointed star. “My name is of no consequence. Tell him the message on the scroll is from Cassadern.”
Maurice raised his eyebrows. “Cassadern? That doesn’t sound like a cherubian name.”
“It isn’t. And I have a message for you, Maurice. Davian will request your help in the future. Do not hesitate to give him what he asks.” The stranger spun, and with a shove of the door flew out.
The summer sun’s rays bounced off the crystal Palace of Ezzer, which sat atop the trees in the center of the city. It illuminated the charred trunks and branches, burned during the Third Battle for the City of Ezzer only three months earlier. Upper-class cherubians, dressed in their finest robes, talked and laughed, but fear, possibly of Elysia’s economic future, clouded their eyes.
The talking continued until a cherubian who wore a black breastplate and a silver kilt barged out the palace’s gates. His sea-green eyes flashed with anger, and his lips snarled, accentuating the scar on his clean-shaven chin. A ring of white metal on the fifth finger of his right hand flashed in the sunlight. Elysian citizens on the streets stopped and stared. Women blushed; children watched with wide eyes. Men tipped their hats, and soldiers saluted as he passed. The seraph nodded back, silently wishing he could fly the streets of the City of Ezzer in anonymity the way he could before the Third Battle.
“Are you all right, Seraph Davian?” asked a herald, who sat next to a blond boy in a light-green robe.
Davian landed and forced himself to smile. “Just fine, young Bradford.”
The other boy whispered something to Bradford.
“Ask him, not me,” Bradford told him.
The younger boy shook his head and turned red.
Bradford sighed and turned to Davian. “My brother wants to know why you aren’t wearing any of your medals.”
The boy hid his head behind his brother’s back.
Davian knelt on one knee and looked around Bradford into the boy’s eyes. “I don’t wear my medals because I don’t like them clinking against my breastplate. Don’t want to let the mornachts know I’m coming, do I?”
The brothers shook their heads.
The younger boy took a deep breath. “Did you really kill all of those mornachts during the Third Battle?”
“Of course he did,” said Bradford. “Seraph Davian saved the City of Ezzer.”
Davian shifted his weight. He hated discussing the Third Battle, and he especially hated people saying he saved the city. “The army of Elysia saved the city, lads.” He patted the young boy on the head. “Lots to do today. No time to rest.” He spread his chestnut-colored wings, and with a few flaps, lifted into the air.
A breeze blew through the city, temporarily cooling it and making the blackened trees sway. Davian hated the trees; they reminded him of how his best friend Eric formed a conspiracy of soldiers and tried to take over Elysia’s government. Eric and his soldiers joined forces with the mornachts and attacked the City of Ezzer, assassinating most of the senators and military officers. Eric himself slaughtered the Prime Minister, High Seraph Octirius, and Davian’s close friend and mentor, Arch-Seraph Zephor.
At least the city doesn’t smell like smoke anymore, Davian thought. Only now, three months after the Third Battle, had the smell of damp soil after the morning rain replaced the smell of burnt wood. Pale green leaves—leaves that usually showed themselves in early spring—started poking through the blackened branches, covering the city like a green mist. Only one tree in the City of Ezzer, the tallest and oldest tree, retained its large, pre-battle leaves. The Treetop Inn, a tavern made of wood darkened with age and stained glass windows that had warped over time, lay nestled in the top of that tree, and Davian headed directly for it.
Davian removed his helmet and burst through the carved wooden door, barely noticing its creak as it swung back and forth. Usually, the Treetop’s wood-paneled walls made him feel cozy and comfortable, but not today—especially with the sterile aroma of soap instead of food filling the inn. He flew to the bar and hopped on a perching stool, ignoring the two merchants who strained their necks to peek at the Treetop’s newest patron. Davian glanced at Maurice, who wiped the far edge of the bar’s counter, muttering to himself.
“How many times are you going to clean this counter, Maurice?” asked Davian.
“Till after tomorrow’s vote.” Maurice looked up, startled. “Um… You don’t usually come around this early, Seraph.”
“No, I don’t. But that’s not why you’re surprised to see me, is it?”
Maurice sighed. “No foolin’ you.” He reached under the counter and pulled out a scroll. “A cherubian arrived about fifteen minutes ago and said you’d be in. He told me to give you this.”
Davian’s brow wrinkled. “That’s strange. I didn’t tell anyone I was coming.” He took the scroll. “What was his name?”
“Wouldn’t give me his name. Said the message on the scroll was from someone named Cassadern.”
Davian’s heartbeat quickened. Cassadern was a seer—a unicorn who knew the future. Davian met Cassadern before the Third Battle but had not seen the unicorn since.
“You look worried, Seraph. If this Cassadern’s loony messenger returns, should I make sure he doesn’t bother you?”
Davian pocketed the scroll. “No need for that. Cassadern is just an old friend.” He set his helmet on the bar. “How’s business?”
“Good. But I don’t think that’s so good.”
“Cherubians used to come to this tavern to enjoy a good time with their friends. Now it’s a watering hole they flock to so they can drown out that scandal you’ve been uncovering.” Maurice sighed. “Elysia may have rebuilt this city, but its residents still need repair. Your usual?”
Maurice grabbed a mug and filled it with Davian’s favorite drink—a dark lager with a splash of amber. He set the honeywine in front of Davian. “You look like you could use more than one of these.”
“I could. And maybe a good many more.” Davian sipped the honeywine and smiled, savoring the lager’s sweet, smooth tingle. His frown returned the moment he set the mug down.
Maurice eyed Davian, turned to the back room, and yelled, “Halden!”
A freckle-faced boy flew out. “Yes, sir?”
Maurice pointed to the two merchants. “Check on those customers while I entertain the seraph here.”
Davian nodded at the boy. Halden immediately looked at the floor.
“It’s just the good Major in a seraph’s uniform, Halden. Same cherubian who used to help you switch the labels on my honeywine barrels as a joke. Now go help those customers.” Halden flew to the merchants, and Maurice turned to Davian. “Bet you didn’t know I knew you did that.”
“I didn’t, but I’m not surprised.” Davian sighed. “Majors can have more fun than seraphs. It will only get worse after tomorrow.”
“The idea of a king doesn’t thrill you, does it?”
Davian shook his head. “The senate’s proposal gives too much power to one cherubian—more than even Ezzer had. I know the Runes tell us we will have a king again, but I don’t like it.”
“I think you and I are the only ones who still believe the Runes, Seraph,” said Maurice.
Davian’s frown deepened.
Maurice raised his eyebrows. “So you think the senate’s motion for a king will pass?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, Maurice.”
“Ah, but I trust your perceptions better than—”
“You should know better than to trust my perceptions by now. All the senators who would have voted against a king were killed in the Third Battle because of my misplaced perceptions. Because I chose to trust him.” He was Eric, the name Davian refused to let escape his lips.
A splash of cold liquid hit Davian’s leg, and plates, mugs, and silverware crashed against the floor. Davian turned and saw Halden standing next to the bar, holding an empty tray, looking as though he wanted to throw up. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“What do you think you’re doin’?” bellowed Maurice. “You should pay more attention, and—and you even spilt honeywine on the good seraph, here!”
Davian placed his hand on Maurice’s arm. “It’s all right, Maurice.” He hopped off the perching stool and helped Halden pick up the mess.
“It…it wasn’t your fault, Seraph,” Halden whispered.
“Now don’t you go troubling the seraph,” said Maurice. “He knows he had nothing to do with you droppin’ this. He’s just helpin’ you because that’s who he is.”
“I, I mean, the Third Battle,” said Halden, placing the last shard of ceramic on the tray. “It wasn’t your…” Halden’s voice trailed off. He picked up the tray and scampered into the honeywine cellar.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into him,” said Maurice. “Been shaky ever since the Third Battle.” Maurice turned back to Davian. “He’s right, though. It wasn’t your fault. You trusted your friend. No crime in that. Sometimes, the people we’re closest to can fool us best. Eric had all of us fooled—not just you. And the rest of us are still alive because of you. I’ve heard at least a third of the Senate—possibly more even—are trying to name you king instead of—”
“I’m no king, Maurice.”
“Well you’d make a better one than—”
Davian held up his hand. “A few senators already mentioned it to me, and I told them the same thing. I don’t want the crown. I belong in battle. Not wasting away on a throne.” Davian rubbed the four-pointed seraph star on his helmet. He scowled and turned the helmet around, facing the star away from him. “And I certainly don’t belong inside the palace, researching a battle I should never have let happen.” For the past three months, Davian had been investigating Eric’s conspiracy, all while the mornachts were taking advantage of Elysia’s weakened forces in the south. I should be fighting mornachts instead of our own people. Davian took another swig, set down his mug, and sighed.
Maurice grabbed Davian’s mug and refilled it. “Well, let me tell you, a lot of folks around here, myself included, don’t exactly feel safe knowing you’re here while all the lieutenants Salla promoted to seraphs are leading the fighting. Bad use of resources if you ask me.” He set the mug in front of Davian. “You should ask Salla to let you return to battle. Especially since the two of you are finally getting along.”
Davian lifted an eyebrow and took a quick sip of honeywine. He and Salla were two of the few high-ranking officers who survived the Third Battle. Salla became high seraph over all Elysia’s military, and he promoted Davian to arch-seraph. The two of them vowed to work together for the good of the nation, but those peaceful days only lasted six weeks.
“Oh. That’s what’s bothering you,” said Maurice. “Things are back to normal again between you and Salla.”
Is it that obvious? Davian thought. He took another gulp of honeywine. He had stormed into the Treetop just after a discussion with Elysia’s high seraph. Salla had told Davian his patience with the investigation had worn thin and threatened to assign Davian to another project if he failed to turn up any new evidence. That prompted Davian to let a few of his thoughts escape, and the two engaged in their most bitter argument ever.
Davian set the honeywine mug down and wiped his mouth. “You have the best honeywine in all Elysia, my friend.”
Maurice laughed. “You still don’t lie as well as Zephor.”
“No one could hide his feelings as well as Zephor.” Davian hopped off the perching stool and grabbed his helmet. He glanced at the seraph’s star and scowled again. “The only thing that keeps me from going crazy as I rot away in that palace is my promise to Zephor on his grave that I would track down his killers.”
“Oh, that you’re doin’, sir. The magistrate’s just letting them go on petty loopholes—and don’t you think the rest of the country hasn’t noticed. We have. I’m hearin’ people talkin’ about it daily. It frustrates us just as much as it frustrates you.” Maurice sighed. “I guess that’s one of the reasons they’re clamoring for a king. They want the politics to stop.”
Davian donned his helmet. “Politics never stop, Maurice.” Only Davian knew Salla was actually the force holding the magistrate at bay. He suspected that Salla hesitated to file charges for fear of the powerful senators, officers, and businessmen on Davian’s list of traitors. “Just keep the honeywine flowing. And if you’ll excuse me, I have a policy meeting I have to attend.”
Davian flew out the tavern door and stood in the shade of the Treetop’s porch. He reached in his pocket and fingered the parchment scroll from Cassadern, wondering why the unicorn chose to send him a written message through a cherubian. He pulled the scroll out and opened it. The time we spoke of before the Third Battle is at hand. Do not give up your faith or your hope.
The message sent chills down Davian’s wings. The Runes’ Book of Prophecy foretold of a cherubian dictator who would rise to power and enslave Elysia. Davian leaned against the balcony, running the prophecy through his head. During a third battle for the crown city, there shall be a great tragedy. The public will cry for change, but the one who answers it will not be the one the people thought.
“The great tragedy was the death of our leaders,” Davian whispered. “And the public is crying for change.” He groaned, wondering how he had missed it. Before the Third Battle, Cassadern had even told Davian that the dictator would soon arise. But how soon? And who is he? wondered Davian. And will anyone else figure it out? Davian knew even those cherubians who still believed in the Runes either ignored or forgot that particular prophecy.
“Um, excuse me… Uh, Seraph?”
Davian turned around and saw Halden looking at his feet. “What can I do for you, young man?”
Halden wrung his hands. “Are you still investigating that…the Third Battle, sir?”
Davian gave Halden his full attention. “I’m still investigating.”
Halden glanced back and forth. His hands started to shake, and his voice fell to a whisper. “I need to speak with you, sir. Now.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Please.”
Chapter Two: Unmasking the Truth
Davian raced through the Palace of Ezzer’s gates and into the palace courtyard. He flew down the main path until he reached the fifty-foot tall, quartz Statue of Ezzer. Davian knelt and crossed his fist over his chest in salute. He kissed his hand and touched the base of the statue. “I wish you were the one we were electing,” he whispered. He glanced at the inscription on the statue’s base. In times of darkness, let faith be your guide. Let your hope never fail.
Davian’s worry increased. The statue’s inscription reminded him of Cassadern’s message: Do not give up your faith or your hope. The last time Cassadern told him not to give up hope, the Third Battle had begun only hours later. Davian stood up and flew through the palace’s crystal doors and down its ornately-carved halls. He passed through the sapphire-encrusted Command Chamber doors, barely noticing the two guards who saluted him.
Davian paused a moment and stared at the hall. Two rows of pillars supported the vaulted ceiling and led past the statues of Elysia’s ancient rulers to an empty crystal throne sitting upon a dais. It won’t be empty for long, Davian thought. He turned to the immense table in the center of the room where High Seraph Salla and the other seraphs perched. Children, thought Davian. Most of the seraphs sitting around the table had taken orders from majors only three months ago, and they held onto Salla’s words the way boys hold onto candy. They stared at Davian with disdain.
Davian landed in front of Salla and knelt.
Salla frowned. “You’re late. I expected my senior arch-seraph to set a better example.”
“Something came up, sir.” Davian’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I need to speak with you alone as soon as possible.”
Salla lifted an eyebrow. “If you wanted to talk to me, you should have come to the meeting on time instead of continuing research on a project you know I’m going to order you to stop tomorrow.” He turned to the other seraphs. “That concludes this meeting.” He hopped off his perch, turned away from Davian, and headed for the door. The rest of the seraphs followed.
Davian looked around the Command Chamber for something to punch instead of Salla, but he dared not touch anything in what he still considered the hallowed hall of Ezzer. He flew after Salla. “Sir, I really need to talk with you.”
“I’m a busy cherubian, Davian. I only ask that you respect my time, which you can’t even seem to do.”
Davian flew in front of Salla, forcing him to stop. “I was late, sir, because I discovered a possible threat on your life. I could have arrived at your meeting on time and allowed you to be assassinated, or I could have traced the threat to make sure it was valid. Which would you prefer I do next time?”
“I’d prefer you adjust your tone and show me proper respect.”
Any other seraph would have cowered and apologized. Davian crossed his arms. “Of course, sir. When you have time to realize you don’t want to die tonight, please find me.”
Davian turned to fly out of the Command Chamber, but Salla blocked his path. “You have five minutes.”
“Thank you, sir. Remember how you and I assumed Eric led the Third Battle Conspiracy? We were wrong. Eric was a blind. He was the face of the leader, but not the leader.” Davian reached in his pocket and pulled out a charred note Halden had given him. He passed Salla the note, which said:
Eric, proceed with your plan to keep Davian on Earth—but do not harm Gabriella more than necessary. Either recruit her, or make it look like an accident. I want Davian out of our wings, not on a rampage. And be patient. You will have the pleasure of killing him once everything settles down. Give the senator my command crystal and tell him to take those who have joined us out the northern canaf before the sun sets on Friday. Once you finish with Gabriella, return and await my orders. The letter had no signature.
Salla frowned. “Where did you get this?”
“A source, sir. He overheard the traitor and Senator Starchel discussing it a few days before the Third Battle. He pulled this out of the fire after they left.”
“And he’s been holding onto it for three months without telling anyone?”
“He was too scared. You should have seen him today, Seraph. His face was whiter than a unicorn’s once he finished telling me everything. His hands never stopped shaking.” Davian sighed. “I think the guilt of not coming forward until now will haunt him more than his fear of retribution.”
“Who is this source of yours?”
“I promised not to reveal him yet, sir. Not even to you.”
Salla stared at the note. “You believe him?”
“I believe him. The information he gave me matches my research, and he would not have known Starchel leads my list of conspirators.”
“Do you recognize the writing?”
“I haven’t had time to analyze it, sir.”
“What’s this got to do with an assassination attempt on my life, Davian? It looks more like you’re trying to stall for time so I won’t take you off the investigation.”
“I’m not done yet, sir,” snapped Davian.
Salla’s eyes flickered. “You will adjust your tone. Or do you only obey orders from Zephor?”
“I don’t have time to explain this, sir, but… I think the dictator of our Runes is about to try to take power.” Davian held up the letter. “I think he wrote this, and if I’m right, you’re in danger.”
“According to this letter, you’re the one who should be worried.”
“Killing me won’t get anyone into power. Killing you will.”
Salla chuckled. “Davian, you’re talking about a little-known prophecy, and the scribes don’t even agree on its implications. And that’s if the Runes are even true, which most cherubians now doubt.” Davian bristled, but Salla continued. “Besides, if you take the Runes literally, a unicorn seer will precede the evil one, and all the seers of Capral are dead.”
Not all, thought Davian. Cassadern was a direct descendent of Capral. Davian toyed with telling Salla about Cassadern, but the unicorn’s life depended on Davian’s secrecy. He refused to break the unicorn’s trust—even if it meant hiding Cassadern’s existence from Salla. “The Runes say Capral’s line will reemerge,” Davian said. “I have other reasons for believing the cherubian prophesied by the Runes is about to take power, but the lives of my sources depend on my not divulging them. Give me the authority to arrest Starchel and question him. I know you want me to wait until we have more information, but I need to find who’s behind this before whoever it is turns on you.”
Salla looked Davian in the eyes. “You really were late because you were checking out this threat on my life?”
“That’s correct, sir.”
“I apologize. I thought your intentions were different.” He stared at the note and pocketed it with a scowl. “Let me question Starchel first. The traitor trusts me. I might get more out of him than you.”
“Should I go with you, sir—for protection?”
“No, the sight of you will probably keep him quiet, but I appreciate the gesture.”
“If you think you can get more information than me, then that’s fine.”
Salla studied Davian for a moment. “Are you all right, Davian? You look worn.”
“I want this to be over with—and… Never mind.”
Davian ran his fingers through his hair. Too short. His hair was much too short, and his hand always left his hair before he completed his thoughts. “Something’s not right, sir. The pieces aren’t fitting together. It’s like…it’s like I’m missing something—and it’s staring me right in the face. Be careful when you talk to Starchel.”
Davian trudged out of the Command Chamber and flew to a balcony overlooking the palace courtyard. He leaned on the railing and closed his eyes. Halden’s tip reminded him of how he felt during the Third Battle, fighting an enemy he could not see. Davian shifted his gaze to the courtyard, concentrating on a vine of lavender starlilies winding up a crystal pillar, and his thoughts wandered to a woman who loved starlilies above all other flowers. It worked; he relaxed for the first time in weeks.
Below, a gigantic, grimy major limped into the courtyard. He towered over the rest of the cherubians and wore the bronze breastplate and kilt of the Reconnaissance and Sabotage Order (RSO), the Elysian military’s special operations division. The major’s scraggly black hair poked out under his helmet. Davian envied his rough, semi-bearded chin, and wished to cast aside his silver seraph’s kilt and wear the Bronze (as RSOs referred to their uniforms) again. He watched the cherubians in the courtyard rush out of the major’s way and chuckled. He suspected their exodus had little to do with the major’s gargantuan form and more to do with his presumably foul stench. This particular major had just returned from a two-month assignment, and Davian knew from personal experience that he rarely bathed while on a mission. Davian leapt off the balcony and flew down to greet his most trusted soldier. “Marcus!”
Marcus surveyed the cherubians in the courtyard, who stopped the moment Davian landed and gazed at their favorite arch-seraph. He eyed Davian, who tried to ignore their stares. Marcus shot Davian an evil grin and put on a flamboyant show, bowing so low his forehead almost hit the ground. He straightened up. “Seraph Davian.” He fell to the ground in mock-humility.
Davian reddened. “Get up, Marcus!” he whispered. “I’m still not used to that.”
Marcus grinned. “I know.”
Davian gave him a playful punch, and the two embraced. Strangers might have thought it odd to see a clean-cut seraph hugging a smelly, dirty major without fear of soiling his own uniform. Strangers knew little about Davian, however. Marcus smelled like sweat, smoke, and a hint of sulfur, reminding Davian of his own days on assignment. He actually hoped some of Marcus’s dirt would rub off on his own uniform and make it look—and smell—more as a soldier’s uniform should.
Marcus pulled a scroll out of his pocket. “Done!”
Davian smiled and led Marcus back to the Command Chamber where they perched at a corner of the conference table. Marcus opened the scroll, revealing a grimy, hand-scrawled map. “We’ve got the whole thing, including a little more of the Swamp of Death.” He passed the map across the table to Davian.
Davian fingered the map. “Well done, Marcus.” This marked the first time any cherubian laid eyes on a complete map of Morvenia, the enemy country to Elysia’s southeast. Davian knew the news should have excited him, but instead he felt his stomach twist around. He turned his head to hide his scowl from Marcus.
“You wish you were there with me, don’t you, Seraph?”
Davian gave Marcus a wry smile. “You know me too well.”
“Well, this’ll cheer you. You’ll never guess how we got out.”
“Your way. Out the port.” Marcus beamed. “It’s the best way. I’m not taking a unit through minotaur territory in the south any more than I have to.”
“Bet you didn’t summon a unicorn and alert all of Morvenia’s wolves once you got out,” Davian mumbled, remembering their last mission together.
“No, sir. Learned not to do that from you, too. Won’t find any unicorns down south nowadays, anyway.”
Marcus sighed, and his joking demeanor disappeared. “Lost two on the way in, Seraph. Minotaurs, you know. And one inside. Wolf pack.” He frowned. “Now I’m starting to understand why you always got so moody.”
“You didn’t lose Theo, did you?” Theo had saved Davian’s life twice during the Third Battle.
“No, sir. The runt made it back alive. You like him, don’t you?”
“You and he are the only soldiers in Heaven’s Realm I trust, Marcus.”
“You don’t trust Gabriella?”
“She’s not in Heaven’s Realm.”
“Ah. The other reason you get so moody.” Marcus grinned at Davian. “You’ve now got the arch-seraph power to assign her to WET.” WET, the Weapons and Technology division of the Elysian military, handled research, statistical analysis, and weapons development. Elysia reserved assignments to WET for soldiers who either showed immense intelligence (and little common sense) or soldiers too injured to fight.
“That would be an abuse of my position and an insult to her,” muttered Davian, hoping Marcus would not suspect just how often he considered it.
“Come on. All seraphs abuse their position—especially Salla. It’s one of the perks—and you don’t even try to use that star on your helmet to get yourself free lager. Get her off Earth, bring her back here and marry her—at least so I don’t have to watch you mope around all the time.”
“Stop tempting me, Marcus.”
Marcus chuckled. Then he frowned.
Davian suspected the loss of his men still upset him. “The longer you command, the more soldiers you’ll lose. It’s the way of the commander. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Your mission was a success. You accomplished your objective. That’s the important part.” Davian rolled up the map and handed it to Marcus. “Get me copies for all the seraphs.”
“On a lighter note, did you meet your quota?” Marcus always set a quota of enemy kills for himself before each assignment.
Marcus sighed again. “Don’t set quotas for myself anymore. Not when I’m the commanding officer, anyway. I’m turning into you.” He scowled. “I liked it a lot better when you were my commanding officer, and all I had to do was follow orders and kill scabs.” Scab was the RSO nickname for mornachts—a nickname that spread to many of the other divisions.
“Me, too, Marcus. Me, too.”
Davian knew neither of them said what he wanted to say. They both wished things remained as they were before the Third Battle, before their own countrymen slew over half of their officers and senators. Before their closest friend betrayed and almost killed both of them. Neither Davian nor Marcus discussed the battle, especially their final fight with Eric in the munitions cellar, where Eric gave Marcus his new, permanent limp and Davian his new, permanent scowl.
Davian hopped off his perch. “Get yourself and the rest of your unit a bath and a shave. Then you are all to meet me at the Treetop Inn. Lager’s on me.”
Marcus raised his huge arm and put it around the seraph’s shoulders, making sure his sweaty, hairy armpit nearly hit Davian’s nose. “Do I have to take a bath?”
Davian grimaced. “Ugh! You could kill a scab with that move, Marcus. Now get going.”
Marcus limped to the door, then turned and cast Davian a worried look. “Is it true what I’m hearing? The Senate is thinking of reinstating a king?”
Davian nodded again.
Marcus snarled. “I never thought I’d see the day when the Elysian people would willingly give up freedom for false security.”
“Neither did I,” mumbled Davian.
Davian flew into the Treetop Inn holding a list of the open positions in WET. He scanned the list, wondering which position might suit Gabriella the best. Weapons Tester. No. Archives. No. Statistical Analyst. Definitely not. She had too much personality for that. Davian’s eye fell on Battle Analyst. That might work. She was definitely smart enough, and soldiers in active duty rarely scoffed at battle analysts. And she would report directly to me. The thought made Davian smile—until he pictured Gabriella’s face when she found out Elysia reassigned her to WET. Salla would see through it anyhow. Besides, she currently guarded Earth’s most important child, and Davian knew a former archery champion was exactly who needed to be guarding Tommy—the child the Runes foretold would save Earth.
“Didn’t know I’d be seeing you twice today, Seraph,” said Maurice, snapping Davian out of his thoughts. Maurice gave Davian a look of concern. “Doing all right?”
“Just fine,” Davian lied. He scanned the half-full tavern. “Has Seraph Salla dropped in tonight?”
Maurice shook his head.
“What about Senator Starchel?”
Maurice wrinkled his nose. “Not him, either.”
Maurice’s answer worried Davian. He had yet to hear from Salla after his talks with the senator and hoped the high seraph was safe. “Is Marcus here yet?”
“He’s at your usual table in the back, sir. I’ll take you there.”
Davian followed Maurice, scanning the tavern. “Did you give Halden the night off, Maurice?”
Maurice scowled. “Little sprite disappeared this afternoon and hasn’t returned yet.”
Davian raised his eyebrows. “Doesn’t Halden skip work often?”
“No, that’s Rutger you’re thinking of, Seraph. Halden never tries to cut work—but I’ll still have to lay into him when he gets here so it won’t happen again.” Maurice glanced at Davian. “You’re lookin’ a little green, Seraph. You sure you’re okay?”
Davian forced a smile and patted Maurice on the back. “Nothing’s wrong with me that some of your brew can’t cure.”
Maurice led Davian to the back corner of the tavern where three RSOs with scraggly hair and chins were perched around a table. Elysia required its soldiers to shave and keep their hair cut close unless they were in RSO and on assignment, and RSOs preferred looking as though they were always on assignment. They cut their beards close but not all the way so they could say they shaved, and they kept their hair longer than Elysian rules dictated simply on what they called a matter of principle. The Elysian military gave up trying to enforce the hair rule with RSOs and used peer pressure to keep the soldiers in Elysia’s conventional military division, the Land and Air Force (LAF), in line. “You don’t want to look like a bunch of RSO ruffians, do you?” LAF officers often asked their soldiers.
“No, sir!” the LAFs would yell, secretly wishing they could look like ruffians in bronze.
Marcus, still scruffy but clean, raised his mug to Davian as he approached. Theo perched on Marcus’s right. His straight hair fell just below his collar, and his beard only grew around his chin and under his nose. Tyce, who was almost as tall and wide as Marcus, perched next to Theo. Tyce sported a full black beard—one-fourth an inch of one, anyway—and he had pulled his wavy, black hair into a one-inch, defiant ponytail.
Davian set his WET list on the table and hopped on a perch next to Marcus. He yanked the band out of Tyce’s hair. “Don’t flaunt it, Tyce.”
“Told you,” Theo whispered to Tyce.
Marcus eyed the list. “So you’ve decided to do it?”
Davian shook his head. “She’d hate me for the rest of my life.”
“Not if you told her why you did it.”
“I won’t abuse my position, Marcus.” Davian crumpled up the list and threw it in the fire.
“Well, I wouldn’t think any less of you if you did.”
Davian surveyed Marcus, Theo, and Tyce and grinned. “Whoever taught you three how to shave needs to learn how to use a knife.”
Tyce grinned back. “That would be you, Seraph. We just don’t look as pretty as you when we shave.” He glanced at Davian’s mid-section. “So, do you have a gut to match that LAF baby-face of yours yet?”
“I can still make you call for your mother, Tyce.”
Tyce hopped off his perch. “I’d like to see you try, Seraph.”
Marcus shook his head. “Not again.”
“Tyce, what are you doing?” asked Theo. “You haven’t beaten him yet!”
“Ah, but he’s out of practice,” said Tyce. “Now’s my chance.”
Marcus glanced at Theo. “Did you put him up to this?”
Theo shot Marcus a look of innocence. “Let’s just say my drekels are on the Seraph.”
Davian stood up, and Marcus grabbed his arm. “The boy’s ego has soared a little too high. Make sure this hurts for me, will you?”
Davian winked. Marcus had no idea he still kept his daily workout regimen in hopes of wearing the Bronze again. He landed in front of Tyce. “It’s your turn to replace Maurice’s tables if we break any this time.”
“Yes, sir,” said Tyce.
The tavern patrons gathered around, watching Davian and Tyce circle each other.
Tyce lunged at Davian, who flipped over his head and landed on the young soldier’s shoulders. Davian rammed his thumb into Tyce’s sarin juncture, a pressure point where a cherubian’s wings met his back. The giant cherubian gasped in pain. Davian kicked Tyce’s legs out from under him and slammed him to the ground. The thud echoed throughout the Treetop, and the patrons cheered.
“Is that enough pain for you, Marcus?” Davian yelled.
Marcus lifted his mug and nodded.
“You owe me one hundred drekels, Tyce!” yelled Theo.
Davian pulled his thumb out of Tyce’s sarin juncture, and Tyce pressed the skin between his thumb and his forefinger to stop the pain. Davian helped Tyce up. “Watch your back. Always watch your back. Your wings are your most prized weapon, and the scabs know it. Let’s try again. When you see me leap, assume I’m going for your wings, and don’t let me.”
Tyce set his jaw and faced Davian. “Yes, sir.”
“That’s not fair!” said Theo. “He insults the seraph and gets a free grappling lesson.”
“He won’t be smiling like that tomorrow,” said Marcus.
Davian leapt over Tyce again, only this time Tyce spun around and tackled Davian. Sweat flew as the two of them wrestled until Davian pinned Tyce to the ground. The onlookers yelled, “Ten, nine, eight…” Davian’s face turned red. Drops of sweat raced down his forehead as he tried to keep Tyce from throwing him off.
“One!” yelled the patrons, and the tavern erupted in cheers again.
Davian helped Tyce up. “Don’t press for advantage while you’re off balance. A soldier the size of Theo can take that risk, but not you. Gain control first. You’re big enough to take the advantage later. It’s all about control. Once you learn control, I won’t be able to beat you.” Davian wiped the sweat off his forehead. “Again?”
Tyce flung his head back and forth, letting his hair fling drops of sweat in all directions. “Again.”
Salla’s herald burst into the tavern. “Seraph Davian?” He beckoned to Maurice. “I’m looking for the arch-seraph. Is Davian here?”
Davian’s heart did a somersault. “Later,” he told Tyce. He flew to the herald. “What’s wrong?”
“High Seraph Salla needs you right now. It’s an emergency!”
The herald led Davian out the southern gates, and Davian narrowed his eyes. Why was Salla outside the city gates? They flew across the meadow for fifteen minutes and entered a dark wood.
“Where are we going?” Davian asked.
The herald ignored him and continued flying.
Davian stopped and landed on the ground. He smelled sulfur, meaning a mornacht lurked nearby. Davian reached for his sword, and ten cherubian soldiers jumped out from behind a boulder and pulled him to the ground. They ripped off his armor and his weapons, including the dagger he always kept in his boot, and one soldier yanked off his ring. The others forced his wings into a wing-lock and chained his wrists and ankles. A soldier with greasy hair, black eyes, and a familiar sneer held a knife to Davian’s throat and said, “I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
…to be continued in Out of the Shadows: Book II of the Elysian Chronicles.