This is a repost of the first chapter of Hope with some modifications now that the story is completed.
Laika spread her arms and arched her back as she burst through the thick storm clouds covering the sky, emerging out from the cold, blinding mist into the glorious warmth of the sun. For a few seconds, the edges of the clouds swirled around her, showing her the nearly invisible wings of light that bore her into the air, and water condensed on her plate mail from the sudden change in temperature. All around her, her brothers and sisters in arms rose up as well, their wings breaking up the cloud like the surf shattering on a stone as the vapor clung to dozens and dozens of glowing shapes.
It was a beautiful sight, and the world wanted for beauty so badly. Soon, everything would be this beautiful if Laika had anything to say about it.
This high up the air was thin, but still, it was warmer than below… her skin rarely felt the sun below, and its warmth seemed to steal the cold, wet ache from her bones with every passing second. Clouds rose in peaks and valleys like vast mountains, an entire realm of slow grace and breathtaking beauty. The golden sunshine of spring turned them into the colors of flame as the sun slowly rose, and the moisture raising off her wings shattered the light into bands of color that danced and spun around her.
Laika laughed in the sheer joy of it. No matter how often she flew, how she saw it never changed. The beauty of the skies never ceased to warm her soul… this was the true state of humanity. She knew it in heart… they belonged to ascend on wings of light, like the ones she had been given. The sense of freedom and strength only grew more intense with each flight, as she grew more and more certain.
Laika called to her magic.
She let the Dawnlight fill her with enough golden power until it began to shine off her skin brighter even than the sun. Pouring that magic into her wings, they shimmered into more firm existence, and she began to soar upward, faster and faster. Her wings bore her straight up with such speed that the wind tightened her face to her cheekbones and a portion of clouds the size of the Darkstone itself was drawn into a column in her wake. Laika willed her wings to move, and the wind of her passage spun her in dizzying circles, up and up until even the sun wasn’t enough to keep the thin air from growing cold.
Still, she was warm. How could she not be when Esperiel flew beside her?
The woman flew above her still, soaring through the air like it belonged to her. Her armor was the gold of a sunray, and her hair the more brilliant than any shade of the sunrise could hope to be. No mere wings of magic carried her through the sky, but enormous feathered limbs of held her aloft in the rising current of air, twenty-five feet across and purer than anything Laika could imagine. Beside her, the cold could not touch Laika’s soul, and she could never want for breath. Beside the Archon, she was home.
Up and up and up she and her order soared, following after Esperiel as they flew ever upward until the blue of the sky above her began to darken, and the stars began to appear. The cold intensified, frosting her armor and making it creak as she moved, but still it didn’t touch her skin in the radiant glow of the Patroness of their order. If there was a limit to how high her wings of light could take her, Laika had never found it.
At last Esperiel began to slow, coming to hover in the thin air.
One by one, the others caught up. Laika was first, but not by long… first among equals she was, not their leader. The Order of Flame had no leader, save for Esperiel herself. One after the other they gathered, forty-seven armored men and women hanging perfectly still, suspended in the air by the magic they had been given, the magic that had ignited their souls and carried them into the skies beside the radiant being alongside them. The hung there around her in a circle, perfectly suspended between the darkness of the skies above and the brightness of the sun shining down. It felt like if Laika took a single step further, she could fall off the edge of Mundus itself. “Our souls to Passage,” Esperiel said in a soft voice that nevertheless carried to them all.
“Our souls to Passage,” Laika recited back. So did the other forty-seven knights.
Esperiel held up her hand to the sun, and the entire Order of Flame did likewise. For a moment nothing happened… then the flames from the distant sun seemed to leap into their hands, forming blades of power from the fire. Bright steel, glinting in the sunlight, seemed to form from the blaze and solidify into weapons to match their wield. Swords, hammers, axes, and flails appeared out of thin air. Laika herself held a spear in two hands.
“Why do we have souls…” Esperiel began, and the rest of the order joined in. “…if not to burn? Why do we have wills if not to fight? Why do we have wings if not to fly?”
“To fly…” Laika whispered the final oath along with them. Then, her heart pounding with excitement and fear, she ordered her wings to let her drop.
For a single perfect second, it felt like she was hanging there in the sky without wings, suspected between stars and stone. Then Laika twisted her body like she was diving into water… and she fell. Her heart hammered in her chest with untold excitement, thrill and fear and glory, and terror. Ahead of her, she saw Esperiel fold her wings tight against her back, closing her legs together and holding her arms in tight to her sides as she tilted to face the ground, and the Archon raced forward and down at alarming speed.
Laika did the same, and soon she was rushing down far more swiftly than she had risen. Even though her slitted visor designed for such flight, her eyes blurred with tears in the wind. Down into the clouds they fell, down and down and down, the flickers of lightning all around them as the rain began to fall once more. As she felt the air thickening, she urged her magical wings to speed her downward faster, to push against the air and send her sailing down with the woman she would die for. Her speed doubled and redoubled, a brilliant aura of light forming around her like the suns corona… and then she burst free of the clouds and into hell.
Beneath her, armies marched, advanced, retreated, fought, and died… a seemingly impossible number of soldiers. She had seen this land once… it had been beautiful, filled with rolling green hills and bright blue water. Now every surface that wasn’t burned black was churned to mud and the rivers that weren’t too choked with bodies to see as water flowed crimson. In the future, men would claim that Passage had taken more souls from this world than she left behind, and they might not be wrong… but it would be worth it. It had to be.
The skies were filled with black shapes, flitting through the storm like enormous bats, but they had no shape, no form. Every shifting shadow, the demons were nightmares of chaos and darkness, shadows of things that could have been, that might be, but nothing that was. Every shape Laika saw looked familiar, but none were recognizable. And as the glowing knights fell through the sky, it seemed like every one of the millions of things stopped harrying the armies below and flew up to meet the Order of Flame.
Esperiel didn’t slow. If anything, she sped up.
Laika poured on speed herself, trusting in Esperiel and focusing every ounce of her will into her magic to strengthen her dive, coaxing more and more speed out of her fall than gravity alone could provide. Through the mess of bodies and fighting demons and men, through the rain as thick as curtains and the hordes of shadows dancing between the raindrops, she could see the lightning illuminating the mountainous shape of the Darkstone directly ahead.
Shadows flooded towards them like a living tide of death and Laika howled her excitement as stretched her wings to their limits. There was a sudden and deafening thunder in her ears… and then ahead of her Esperiel seemed to burst into flame. Esperiel, Greater Archon of Hope, daughter of the Father himself, blazed like a tiny star as she abruptly spread her wings wide, the feathers vanishing into a flame that seemed to consume them… and the shadows began to burn.
One after the other they fell from the sky as soon as they got within a hundred feet of Esperiel… their dark forms reduced to purified dust by her radiance. The shadows tried to free out of the way they couldn’t match the speed that the Archon had been building as she had fallen from the edge of the world… the light caught them, one after the other, and still they raced downward, downward, downward. Laika felt she could make out individual soldiers and demons now, could see Esperiel’s glory reflected on shields and in the eyes of cheering soldiers as she brought Hope to her followers.
She felt when the moment was right. Laika gasped and spread her arms and legs to slow her fall, only a thousand feet from the dirt of Mundus. Her wings snapped wide, a gesture that would have ripped any birds wings from their body with the stress… but not her nearly invisible wings, shimmering in stored sunlight as she redirected her moment to send herself and her brothers and sisters flashing along above the battle in a howling cyclone of wind and swirling raindrops. Laika shot toward the Darkstone far swifter than the arrow from a bow and heard the ripples of shattering air behind her as she raced ahead faster than sound could follow.
Swift as Laika was, changing her momentum like that had slowed her. Esperiel had not slowed down at all.
The Archon crashed into the field before the Darkstone like a comet, fire erupting in every direction like she had summoned the sun from the sky to fight on behalf of humanity… and every single demon trying to hold the field against the humans died.
She had cleared an area for the Order of Flame to land. Screaming her defiance, Laika flashed swiftly past the now land-bound Esperiel and into the face of the roiling mass of demons even now boiling back forth from the Darkstone… and the final battle in this long war for the fate of humanity began.
Laika and the others of her order slammed into the tide of demonic filth like a hammer. Clad in metal armor blessed by Archons, wielding blades of Sunsteal, they were the image of flame reflected into the demons. Together, they burst through the lines of monsters, striking out. Her armor seemed to pulse with energy as she infused it with magic, feeding an equal amount of the blessings she had been given into her weapon as her plate, and she dashed across the flame-blasted stone ground. Wave after wave of dark energy crashed onto them, demonic sorcery, but Laika merely flung up one arm to guard her visored eyes, and her armor repelled the attacks, one and all… it felt like running into a hailstorm, but it didn’t stop her.
To her right and left, knights bellowed war cries, and Laika echoed them, the cry barely muffled by her helm. Then she was among the demons.
She fought like a storm. Her spear flashed out once, twice, thrice, and three demons fell, dissolving into ash and smoke, smearing soot onto her armor for a second before the blaze of her glow burned it away. Then her spear transformed in her hands to two-handed sword just as she swept it down and across to slay three of the Chaos-spawn with a single blow. Their bodies burned black, and smoke rose as they collapsed, falling apart before they even reached the ground. Two more advanced on her and her sword was now a polearm, held defensively, pushing them back until the Knight beside her smashed one of them flat to the ground with a heavy hammer in a spray of smoke. Then her spear was back, and she fought on.
She swung again and again. Bits of flesh and demonic carapace sprayed into the air like it was the rain bouncing off the ground. Her weapon transformed time and time again, always the perfect weapon she needed, always her preferred spear when possible. Laika was a hurricane, spinning, sweeping out with the Sunblade and stitching a line of death across the demonic horde, leaving the monsters to drop dead to the ground in her wake. Some of the weapons she never would have been able to lift without the power surging through her, but every one of the weapons felt as light to her as the smoke the demons dissolved into.
Then she caught a glimpse of Esperiel as she entered the battle. If Laika were a reflection of sunlight on the battlefield, Esperiel was the sun itself. She shone so bright that she was hard to look at, even for Laika – her wings hadn’t extinguished from her explosion of power when she landed but seemed instead to blaze brighter now than ever. Holding a polearm and shield of glowing Sunsteel, she pressed forward into the horde, carving a path for the others of the order to follow. She was like a star in the sky… a glowing point of light among a sea of darkness overwhelmed and small but shining brightly anyway.
Laika cried out in a fury and threw herself into the fight, following in Esperiel’s wake. “WHY DO WE HAVE SOULS,” she called out as she fought.
Several others answered. “IF NOT TO BURN?”
Laika fought forward. She could see the shimming form of the Darkstone ahead of her, its obsidian sides reflecting the light of Esperiel’s glory, distorting it… it was so close now. They had never gotten this close… “WHY DO WE HAVE WILLS IF NOT TO FIGHT!” She screamed. She cut forward, reducing more demons to smoke and ash, noticing as she did no small number of shining bodies laying on the ground behind her – alone, with all the bodies of the demons having faded away. She screamed in outrage as she cut her away forward. “WHY DO WE HAVE WINGS,” she yelled as she stabbed her spear into the eyes of a huge behemoth. It fell on her, threatening to crush her, but her Sunsteel became an ax, and she slashed a way through it, its body turning to smoke as it fell over her. “IF NOT TO FLY?”
Laika was the finest mortal warrior ever born – thousands had told her exactly that – but she was pressed her to limits and beyond trying to keep up with Esperiel as she cut her way forward. To the Archon, this seemed less like a battle than it did a journey through a jungle, cutting foliage out of her way to allow herself to pass… Laika and the others fought to keep her from getting surrounded.
She could feel it when the tide changed when the press of demonic bodies abruptly intensified. The demons couldn’t die… not a single one of them had been slain in this battle. The Darkstone was spitting them back out to fight again, drawing back others from the armies around them to defend itself, obeying the will of whatever spawn of the Traitor commanded it. Surely they would falter before the weight of the darkness. “WHY DO WE HAVE SOULS IF NOT TO BURN?” someone called, and Laika sang out the oath herself. The demons pressed forward. This was their best chance to kill Esperiel, and they knew it – a Greater Archon who had been a foe of the Traitor for nearly as long as life had existed on Mundus. More of the knights surrounding her fell, but Laika fought on, even if she couldn’t see how they could win. She kicked away a demonic corpse, smashing its body into another before it dissolved fully into smoke, knocking the beast down and allowing her to stab it through the chest with her spear. The battle was unwinnable… but not hopeless. Nothing was hopeless as long as Esperiel fought.
Laika would later remember the battle as flashes of flame and lightning, waves of terror and darkness and smoke more than events. She slew more demons in that minute, that hour, that century, than her entire order had before today, and every brother and sister beside her did likewise, but they killed not a single one, could kill not a single one. Yet somehow, impossibly, Esperiel pushed them back. Pushed back an entire army with the knights she considered her children as her back. And then they were before the gaping maw of an opening in the Darkstone and Esperiel stood in the doorway like a firestorm. “Oppal!” she cried. “Now! Seal it!”
She fought on. They all did… and nothing happened. “Oppal!” Esperiel called into the storm. “Seal the door! Close the Darkstone!” Tamarin died, a demonic talon finding the tiny slid in his helm and impaling his skull. Lestia died, her breastplate crushed by the hammerfist of a behemoth. Reshel died, her body grabbed between four demons and ripped limb from limb while Laika tried to reach her… and still nothing happened. “Oppal!” Esperiel cried. “Oppal, you traitorous filth!”
They were being overwhelmed. This close to the Darkstone the demons losses were replenished instantly, a never-ending tide of death and shadow that gave them no respite. Laika’s arms and legs burned and she had no idea how long she had been fighting, how much longer she could keep fighting. She could see nothing but darkness on all sides – the demons had surrounded them utterly now – but ahead she saw Esperiel blaze with determination like a bonfire in the dark night. Then somehow she surged forward, cutting through the demon horde and pressing forward, faster than Laika and her sisters could follow. The Order of Flame was quickly separated from the Archon of Hope, a thickening wall of darkness between them even as Laika screamed and tried to fight her way to Esperiel, knowing that she was going to die…
Then Esperiel’s flame pressed through the maw of the Darkstone, and she became like a beam of light flooding out of that tunnel. For an instant, it was like the obsidian had become transparent, and Laika had a moment’s impression of the flaming Archon standing on a hill before the doorway, with an infinite field of nightmares arrayed against her.
Then the demons began to scream. All around Laika, the demons killing her brothers and sisters faded screaming into smoke, clawing at the ground as they were ripped away back towards the Darkstone. A whirling vortex of darkness and flame as Esperiel attacked the heart of evil itself and every demon was called home to defend its fortress. “To the Archon!” Laika screamed, charging forwards towards the glowing tunnel…
And then the door was gone. The shining obsidian faded to dull basalt. The vortex of swirling smoke stopped… and the battle was over.
Laika stood there was wide eyes, the rain carrying her tears away like they had never been there. Esperiel… was gone. She had… she had sealed herself in the vault with the monsters, somehow sealing the gate. They had won – they had saved humanity – but it wasn’t supposed to be like this! Oppal… Fate… had betrayed them.
She looked left, then right. Seven. Tala. Ytrin. Bren. Recca. Amelia. Sander. And herself. Of the knights who had begun this battle, there were only seven left.
A thunderstorm of noise washed over her. The cheers of armies, of entire nations mobilized to war… every man, woman, and child given a sword or spear or bow and brought to fight in a single desperate struggle. Nearly everyone left living on the planet cheering at once, and the sound echoed so loud she could hear it from miles away. Laika and her brothers and sisters didn’t feel like cheering. They had known Passage might take any one of them, even all of them… but Esperiel?
No! She wasn’t dead. Laika had seen her in the Darkstone, fighting still… trapped, unable to escape just as the demons were, but not dead. Someday she would escape. Someday… and Laika would have the Order waiting for her when she did.
She tuned out of the cheers, roaring louder than the thunder. This was nothing to celebrate. They might call this the way mankind prevailed, but Laika would always know it as the day hope died.