HERALD (Age of the God Eater #1)
When the Godless Kings sacked Heaven, two hundred angels escaped their wrath. A thousand years later and only ten of the winged divinities remained. King Emrik Hostain was about to make it nine.
Soldiers of the Third Legion died in their dozens as the angel swept through them. A sizzling blade of alabaster light, longer than the tallest of men, trailed lightning in its wake. Men and women threw themselves at the divinity, driven on by a battle lust beyond natural. And Emrik watched the slaughter with grim satisfaction.
His horse whinnied, nostrils flaring at the smell of blood on the wind, and he put a hand on its neck to calm it. Beside Emrik, his Red Weavers worked. Their blood-stained hands plucked at the air, pulling on threads only they could see, eclipsing all fear and doubt within the troops, leaving no room for anything but the call of battle, the lust for the kill. A thousand soldiers, those of the Second and Fourth legions, waited at Emrik’s back. Their desire to join the battle was a nervous crackle of energy, and his own blood pulsed in anticipation.
The fires were spreading. Incinerated bodies left behind by the angel’s lightning setting the field of barley aflame.
They had been tracking the creature for weeks, following rumours and abstract signs. The Elder Seers had pointed the way, and they were never wrong. Their sight went beyond any mortal vision, dipping into the prescient. Finally, Emrik had caught up with the angel on the cusp of evening in a small farming village. The village would have to be put to the torch, of course. Emrik could not allow the seditions of worship to take hold in his lands, and the farmers had undoubtedly been harbouring the renegade divinity. Never again would he allow his people to worship.
Mortal weapons did little to the angel, just scrapes and grazes which healed almost as quickly as they were dealt, but that wasn’t the point. The vanguard were nothing but a sacrifice. The more mortal lives an angel took, the more vulnerable it became.
Two more soldiers of the Third fell, and a brief lull in the fighting allowed the angel time to raise its crackling blade to the sky. A column of searing lightning broke through the blanket of grey clouds. It struck the ground, sending up plumes of dust and fire. Everything the electric light touched burst into flames, and another hundred soldiers died screaming, fires from within ripping from mouths and melting eyeballs in their sockets. Lives given for the cause, and there could be no greater cause than this. Emrik would see to it their families received recompense.
He squinted against the light, a gauntleted hand falling to the pommel of his blade. The angel would not have called down its sigil unless it was weakening. It was finally time for Emrik to join the remnants of the Third in battle.
The last of the lightning struck and faded, the clouds spiralling away from its heavenly source to reveal the crimson sky above. The angel knelt on one knee in the centre of a circle of ash and fire, its lightning-wreathed sword planted in the earth. Soldiers crumbled to charred skeletons, the flesh all burned away to nothing but husks. The divinity’s sigil was etched in deep lines all around it. A permanent scar the land could never heal.
Emrik blinked into his hawk sight, his vision now provided by the bird soaring above. From there he could see the sigil clearly, a horseshoe shape with a lightning bolt striking through the centre and feathery wings spread out behind it. Emrik blinked back to his normal sight and let the corner of his mouth tug into a grim smile. Now he knew which divinity he was dealing with.
The Rider, God’s own stable master, or at least he had been while the Heavens still stood. It was Mathanial who first showed humans how to break a horse. He had taught them everything they knew about husbandry. Even the horse Emrik sat on was a product of that knowledge. All of it could be traced back to the wisdom of this divinity.
The leather saddle creaked as Emrik leaned forward. “Mathanial. I have waited long to taste your blood.”
The angel stood, pulling his blade from the earth and swiping a new trail of lightning through the air in front of him. The remnants of the Third hesitated, their numbers and will both broken. It mattered not, their job was done, their sacrifice made. The angel’s immortality shield was broken.
He was beautiful, the Rider, no man or woman could ever deny that. His robe shone white, no spot of ash or blood had touched it, and his feathery wings glistened in the glow of lightning. With charcoal skin, full lips, and eyes translucent as pearls, it was no wonder the villagers had fallen under the angel’s sway. They could hardly be blamed. But the blameless died just as readily as the guilty.
A wiser divinity would attempt to flee, stretch his wings and leave Emrik’s forces depleted and in disarray. But not Mathanial. The Rider’s arrogance and pride were legend, documented in texts from before the Crusade.
The angel pointed his crackling blade towards Emrik and smiled. “Godless King, do you fear to face me yourself?” His voice rang with power and glory, like a perfectly forged bell resonating with the soul.
“I do not fear your kind, divinity,” Emrik shouted. “I pity you. And I relish the power I will take from your corpse.”
“Come then, Godless!” The angel raised its empty hand to the sky, and a bolt of yellow lightning ripped from the clouds. He caught the bolt, and it resolved into a jagged, crackling spear. The angel took a single step forward and launched the spear with a clap of thunder.
Emrik caught the spear in a gauntleted fist and held it, crackling, just a span from his chest. It possessed a will of its own, a drive attempting to force it onward even grasped in Emrik’s hand. Bolts of energy sizzled along the surface of the spear, licking at his skin beneath the armour. The smell of burning hair was strong in Emrik’s nostrils, and his skin grew uncomfortably hot around the spear. No mortal hand could have stopped that spear, but the pain convinced Emrik his mortality had not yet forsaken him entirely.
With a growl, Emrik clenched his fist around the haft of the spear, and it shattered in his grasp. A shockwave of light and energy burst out, flattening nearby soldiers of the Fourth and even knocking a few of the Red Weavers from their horses. Emrik sat tall, unfazed. He wiped the fading light and crackling energy from his hand, then reached for his sword. It was time to put an end to Mathanial, the Rider.
“Father, let me,” Borik said, already dismounting. “Do me the honour of the kill, and I will make a gift to you of this creature’s divinity.” Honeyed words, spoken without guile.
Emrik glanced down at his son. Borik was strong. Young and more lithe than brawny, one of many traits he had unfortunately inherited from his mother. Borik, like all Emrik’s children, had feasted on more than one divinity in his time. His strength was undeniable. A war waged within Emrik, to protect his son or to believe in his ability. Borik would not be the first of his children to fall to an angel, and Mathanial was strong enough to have survived a thousand years of being hunted. Emrik decided to trust in blood.
“Try not to damage the body too badly, son,” Emrik said. “I do not wish to waste any part of his flesh.”
Borik drew his sword, a radiant weapon with a blade as black as night save for the bright bloodstains that would never wipe clean. One of the seven Godslayer arms used to end the great tyrant’s reign. He saluted to his father and stepped forward to meet the angel. Borik wore no armour, only riding leathers. They would not protect him from the angel’s wrath should the fight go badly.
“Let us be at it then, Godless pup,” Mathanial said. His sword trailed lightning as it danced in his hands. “I will show you divine purpose.”
The surviving soldiers of the Third backed away, forming a ring of steel and flesh around the mortal and angel.
They met with a clash of steel and sparks. Borik was not a short man, but angels often grew larger than any man could hope to measure, and Mathanial over topped Borik by a good head and a half. The divinity was all ebony muscle and fluid grace. The speed of an eagle and the strength of a pack of bears. Yet Borik matched him, dancing away from strikes and replying in kind.
At least for a time.
The difference in skill and stamina soon became clear. Mathanial was divinity, blessed and gifted by the God. He did not tire, and his technique was ever flawless. Emrik grimaced as he watched his son begin to flounder against the angel.
Borik stumbled, caught wrong-footed on a parry, the Rider drove him back, and Borik tripped and fell. Emrik tightened his grip on his sword’s pommel, stood up in his stirrups. Too late.
The God was never known for mercy, and it was a trait his angels shared. Mathanial raised a hand, and a bolt of lightning struck, forming into a spear in his grip. He drove it down into Borik with a shout of triumph.
Yet Borik was no longer there. His body flickered, and for just a moment Emrik saw two of his son, one impaled upon a spear of lightning and the other on his feet, slipping past the Rider. The impaled Borik faded away like embers blown from a fire.
Borik’s Godslayer sword flicked out, and Mathanial screamed as one of his wings fell lifeless to the ashen field. Before the angel could turn, Borik slashed at the divinity’s ankle and leapt away. Mathanial half collapsed, his sword flailing, one leg all but useless, and off balance without one of his wings.
“You monster!” Mathanial shouted. “That power was Aranthall’s.”
Borik circled the angel, keeping his sword up in case of any sudden attack. “Yes, it was,” he said lightly. “Tell me, angel, would you like to know how your sister tasted?”
“Savage!” The Rider hissed as he spun about, throwing his spear. Borik slipped around the lightning and darted in. He laid open one of the angel’s wrists and stabbed his blade through the other hand. Mathanial’s sword dropped from his useless hand even as the lightning spear hit the ground in the far distance. An explosion erupted from the impact, the heat of which Emrik could feel even from such a vast distance. Emrik decided he wanted that power for himself. He would claim the angel’s heart.
“Stop,” Emrik said before his son could move in to strike the killing blow. Borik backed up, bowing his head, ever obedient. Emrik urged his horse forward and plucked his bow from its place on his saddle. It was a magnificent thing forged from the bones of a pegasus.
“Savage,” Mathanial snarled. “Beast. Heathen! Was there no part of the Heaven you did not rape as you sacked it?” His eyes were on the bow. The stables of the pegasi were once the Rider’s pride and joy. He had raised each of the flying beasts with his own hands. All dead now. Emrik had not allowed even one of the winged horses to survive.
Emrik took an angel-feathered arrow from his quiver and set it to the string. “Almost all of the divine has a use, angel. Do you know what I will do with you? Your brain will turn children into seers to track down the last of your kind. From your bones I will forge weapons beyond the power of mortal steel to slay your brothers and sisters. Your wings will make arrows that fly true for miles and never miss. I will feed your tongue to a minstrel, and they will sing songs of my glory that will make men weep. Your blood will extend my son’s life a hundred years. The only part of you I cannot use, angel, is your life.”
The angel laughed, a sound like a chorus of church bells from the ancient times before the Crusade. Before Emrik tore all the churches to rubble.
“I am Mathanial, the Rider. Herald of the Fourth Age. I die with dignity, Godless King. I only wish I could be there to see you cower and beg when my father visits retribution upon you.”
“The God is dead, angel!” Emrik spat. He turned and stood in his saddle, drawing back the bow string. “I was there when Heaven burned. I watched my grandfather take God’s head and mount it on my father’s spear. I drank the divine blood, and I feasted on God’s heart. Do you see your failure? You heralded the Fourth Age. An age in which we humans threw off your shackles, killed God and took divine power for ourselves.”
Again the Rider laughed. “How little you know. The Fifth Age is upon us. God cannot die. Humans can die. Even angels can die, but…”
Emrik’s arrow took Mathanial in the left eye.
“You’re right about that.”
The angel slumped over sideways. Dead. One less divinity in the world. Emrik was one step closer to final victory. A thousand years of war, of hunting divinities across the world, was almost at an end.
A cheer went up from the soldiers of the Third and Fourth. Carvers rushed forward quickly, eager to preserve as much of the divinity as they could before any of him spoiled.
Borik licked blood from his blade as he approached, his eyes fluttering in obscene pleasure. It was uncouth, but at least it was not wasteful. Even a drop of divine blood was worth a fortune. “That was well done, Father,” he said. “A lengthy but successful hunt. One more angel dead. Only ten remain, I think.”
“They’re dying. Your thousand year quest is almost at an end. Soon their divine heresy will be wiped from memory along with the name of the God. We should celebrate.” He clapped his hands. “Wine.”
“Maybe,” Emrik said, eyeing the red glow of the sky behind the clouds. He still remembered when the sky was blue, before the Heavens bled.
Mathanial’s words bothered him. The angel claimed the Fifth Age was upon them. But that was only possible if a new Herald had been born. Yet, how could there be a new angel if God was truly dead?
Year 1058 of The Fourth Age. 1013 years After Heaven Fell
Renira ducked into a crouch and rolled away from the beast’s lazy swipe. Her silver-plated battle skirt picked up dust and straw, tarnishing the metal. The lady would be displeased, but those were concerns for later. There was a monster to battle.
The beast was black as the darkest night and large enough to bite a man clean in two. Coarse fur covered its entire body, and its eyes glowed yellow with languid malice. Each paw ended in razor claws that could shred armour and flesh alike, and the ground was littered with the evidence of its deadly prowess. Renira counted three corpses, though some were in more than a few pieces which made it tough to be sure. None of them had died well.
The Black Beast of Ner had plagued Riverden for years. It stole out at night and raided nearby farms, leaving none alive to tell of its ferocity. Any fools brave enough to confront it at its lair quickly found they were not equal to the task. It was a monster from nightmare, and it had been a burden on the people for too long. For the sake of those lost, Renira had donned her old thrice-blessed armour and, with shield and battle standard in hand, ridden out to face the Beast of Ner.
The monster hissed fire, and Renira raised her shield. She crouched behind it, feeling the searing heat of the flames as they rushed past her in a torrent, her teeth gritted against the effort. When the inferno finally guttered out, Renira emerged unburnt. She stood tall, planted her battle standard in the ground, and let the banner unfurl. A blazing sun with a crescent moon in front. Her family crest, the symbol of house Washer.
“I have no wish to slay you, beast,” Renira said confidently. “But no longer can you plague these lands. No longer must the people suffer under your…”
The beast yawned, a mouth full of fangs and blood and rot. Then it sat down, stretched a long back leg over its head, and began licking its arse.
“Well, that pulled all the tension out of the dream.”
Renira chewed on her lip and sighed. No longer fighting a terrible beast from legend, she was back in the dilapidated barn. Her silver armour was a plain blue dress long since past its best and used now for the daily chores. Mother would not be pleased she had rolled in the straw and dirt, but it was only one more thing to be washed. Renira’s shield and battle standard were gone too; now she held a brush and a large dustpan. The beast, once terrible in her mind, was just a large black cat, still equally vicious but not deadly. Well, not to people anyway. The three rat corpses in pieces nearby were plenty evidence that the cat was still a dangerous monster.
“You could at least try to play the part next time, Igor,” Renira said as she went about sweeping rat entrails from the barn floor. The cat meowed and sauntered away as a reply, brushing its tail past her leg as it went. No doubt there would be more corpses to clean up tomorrow, though where Igor kept finding them was a mystery Renira had yet to puzzle out. Perhaps she would have to don the cap of an investigator. There would be clues to uncover, witnesses to question, the truth to shake free. But she had already wasted enough time today, and if she didn’t finish her chores, Mother wouldn’t let her go see the parade.
Renira finished sweeping the barn clear of corpses and dust, dumping them all in the compost heap as always. Then she collected Yonal Wood’s dry washing from the pile and ran it over to his hut near the forest edge. Yonal wasn’t there, of course, no doubt in the forest chopping down a tree that had stood watch over Riverden for hundreds of years. But Flora Wood was a kind woman, heavy with her fifth child and barely able to keep track of the other four. She accepted the washing with a smile and told Renira to collect as much firewood as she could carry, then handed over a few carrots out of pure generosity. The people of Ner-on-the-River were a small but close community. They existed just outside of Riverden, living off the land as much as possible and trading favours and good will rather than coin. It was a fine place to live, but not very exciting. Especially as there was no one even close to Renira’s age in the little community. All her friends lived within the town limits, and they rarely found time or excuse to visit, except in the summer when the water was warm enough to swim.
The sun was slouching towards mid-morning by the time Renira was done with her chores, and it was a chilly morning at that. The winter months were long and brutal near Riverden, and the water turned icy. Snow and hail were a frequent hazard and made drying the washing so much harder. That was why they had the barn. Mother said it had held horses and other livestock in her grandfather’s day, but fortunes turned quickly, and now it only held rats and a fat black cat intent on decorating the place in gore despite Renira’s best efforts to keep it clean.
The washing cart was just arriving when Renira made it back to the house. She threw the firewood in the shed, rushed the carrots into the kitchen, changed into a fresh dress of green and brown and dumped her dirty one on the floor. The cart would only stay for a few minutes, just long enough for Poe to offload his cargo, and then it would be back on the way to Riverden, and Renira aimed to be on board for the trip. She couldn’t miss the parade. All her friends would be there, and it was her first chance to see royalty in the immortal flesh. It was the event of the year, of the decade even, and Renira would rather dance on a beehive than miss it.
“All done for the day already?” Mother asked. She was busy helping to sort through the cart’s washing load. It mostly came from the smithy, but recently a new butcher had opened up shop near the town limits, and they had heard no one could get blood out of aprons quite like Lusa Washer.
“It was an easy day,” Renira said. She dug into the piles of washing and helped with the sorting. Bloody aprons one side, ash and grease-smeared shirts on the other. The cycle of washing was an endless one.
“Only three dead rats today, and the washing from this morning isn’t dry yet. I stoked the fire a little, and Flora Wood gave us three carrots.” There had been four, but Renira had already eaten one.
Her mother straightened up from the washing pile, easing a crick in her back, and wiped her forehead. She was a plump woman but strong, with calloused hands from countless days washing, washing, always washing. Her own dress was faded orange, voluminous and rarely dry, and the morning’s work had put a healthy colour in her cheeks. Some of her hair had escaped the braid she wore, and she puffed it out of her face as she looked critically at her daughter.
Like a judge deciding my fate. Guilty! Throw her in the stocks. No fun for Renira.
“I could use your help with this load, Ren. There’s a lot come in today and…”
Her mother chuckled. “Oh, do you have somewhere else to be today?”
Renira chewed her lip. It was all part of the game, she knew, but if there was even a chance her mother was serious, it would mean another day of washing while everyone in Riverden was celebrating, having fun.
“The parade is today, Mother,” Renira said. “No one else is working. All my friends are going, and… Well, the king will be in Riverden!”
Her mother shrugged. “If you’ve seen our king once, you’ve seen him a hundred times. He never changes.” She exchanged a look with Poe. “I remember the first time I saw him when I was a girl. So strong, and those eyes.”
“Mhm,” Poe agreed. “I heard he ain’t not aged a day in near a thousand years. Old as the age itself, so folk say.”
“So folk say,” her mother agreed. Her hand went to her chest, rubbing at the necklace beneath her dress. The hidden icon of her faith. No one else ever noticed, but there was no reason anyone else should. It was their secret, daughter and mother.
All just fanciful stories anyway, God and angels and demons. Not like a real flesh and blood immortal king.
“I’ve never seen the king,” Renira said. It was not the first time she had made the argument, but her mother had conveniently forgotten, or at least pretended to. “Please please please. You said I could go if I did the daily chores.”
“Hmm. Did I?”
“I’ll do extra washing tomorrow.”
Poe laughed. “Renegotiating a deal now?”
Her mother nodded. “A foolish mistake, but one I’ll be glad to benefit from. An extra load tomorrow in return for the day off today.”
It was half a day off at best, but it was also better not to argue and take a chance of the terms becoming even less favourable.
“Go get your warmer coat, Ren.” Mother was serious again now, a wary glance towards the eastern sky and the grey clouds hanging above the snow-capped Ruskins. The mountain range to the south and east towered over Riverden, and none save the barbaric blood worshippers of Aelegar were fool enough to risk its peaks. “There’s a chill in the air, and a frost on its way. It’s gonna be a bad one, I can feel it in my teeth.”
Renira sped away before her mother could change her mind. She wondered if mothers ever stopped treating their daughters like children, but even at sixteen winters, she was clearly still a child in Mother’s eyes. Renira pulled off her light coat and found her warmer winter coat, a padded sheepskin jacket that buttoned closed at the front, though it was missing a button. She dumped her lighter coat on the floor next to her worn dress and rushed back out front before Poe could drive the cart away. She was just in time. The washing was all unloaded, separated into three piles, and Poe was mounting the driver’s seat of the cart, reins already in hand.
Her mother pulled Renira aside before she could jump up next to Poe. The delay was frustrating, but she weathered her mother’s fussing. Lusa smiled up at her daughter and brushed some stray hairs from her face. Renira might already be taller than her mother, but they had the same long mousy brown hair that refused to stay in any braid no matter how hard either of them tried.
“Believe it or not, I know what these things are like,” her mother said, still smiling. “Keep track of the time, and don’t lose your friends. I want you back before it gets dark, and remember you’ll need to walk back so it’ll take longer.”
Renira nodded along impatiently. “I know. I’ve been to town before, Mother.”
“Cheeky. Today will be different. Poe says there’s drunkenness in the streets already, before even midday. Here.” Mother handed over a small purse, and Renira checked inside to find five bronze ekats. “I know it’s not much, but it’s been a hard season.”
Renira grinned. “It’s more than I expected.” She clasped the purse to her chest and bowed her head formally, imagining herself entrusted with a great fortune. “I shall spend it wisely, Lady Mother.”
Mother shook her head and laughed. “There you go again. I need you to spend one ekat on a loaf of bread. From Tobe Baker, not Firen. Last loaf we got from Firen went mouldy inside of two days. The rest is yours to spend.”
“Yes, Mother.” Renira made to pull away.
Her mother pulled her back and into an embrace. “Be careful, Ren,” she whispered close to Renira’s ear. “Say nothing suspicious.”
The same order drilled into Renira from birth. “I know, Mother.”
“I mean it, Ren. Today of all days, say nothing.”
She still talks to me like I’m a child. As if I don’t know all the rules already.
Renira gave her a reassuring smile, then climbed up onto the cart next to Poe. It was only a trip into town. There was the parade on, sure, but Renira had been to town hundreds of times. The old driver chuckled and gave the reins a shake, and the mule brayed and started forward.
“A loaf of bread from…?” her mother called as the cart trundled down the drive.
“Tobe not Firen,” Renira shouted back without looking.
“Before it gets dark,” Renira said, waving a hand over her head.