The Beast and The Angel

The Beast strode forward, full of grim purpose. The world came into existence as he walked and searched, jolting into reality as if suddenly remembered. Humans faded in and out, but they weren't real. He'd found that whenever he touched one, it just dissipated. There were only twenty-one real beings in this place, and they were probably hostile.

As he continued, the Beast's surroundings became eerily familiar. The people began to be familiar, too. He was in a village, but only one house was clear. The ghosts screamed as he approached. Only the ones next to the house made any noise, but that was enough. The terror on their faces and in their voices told him they remembered, too. Icy daggers of sorrow—no, of regret—no, of soul-ripping guilt pierced his heart. The Beast stumbled as the weight of his sins, long ignored, came crashing down to crush his broken soul. He remembered each one as acutely as if he were committing them now.

A man, ripped from his wife and child at the Beast's command. A woman he killed for rare herbs, the blood fresh on his hands.

No ....

A broken warrior, screaming in agony as he was lowered into the boiling cauldron.

No!

A burning village, razed to punish one woman.

NO!!

The Beast steeled himself and stood, pushing back against the torrent of self-loathing. He couldn't give in, not yet. Not before he gave a life back. He looked up. He was in front of the house. He entered, and gasped.

In front of him was an angel, a more majestic and noble creature than any the Beast had laid eyes on. Clad in gleaming steel armor and armed with a sword the color of lightning, he was pacing agitatedly. His noble face was marred by grief and anger.

“Greetings, Angel.” said the Beast.

In a steel flash, the Angel whipped the tip of the sword to the Beast's eye-level.

“Easy, easy ...” said the Beast. “I'm a friend.”

The Angel slowly lowered the blade and sheathed it. “I will kill you if you betray me,” he said. “Fair,” the Beast said, “but you'll need me to defeat the others.”

What others?”

On cue, something outside roared. As the Angel spun toward the noise, the wall exploded. But instead of littering the room with debris, the pieces simply faded away as though they never existed, revealing a minotaur. The creature raised its battle axe and roared again. The Angel drew his sword, but the Beast just charged. No need to wait. He leaped.

The minotaur tried to sidestep, but the Beast was too fast. He hit the creature full-on, knocking it to the ground, and clamped onto its right shoulder with his fangs. The minotaur roared a third time, but this time with pain. It thrashed against the Beast, scoring a hit on his jaw—forcing him to let go— and throwing him off. He didn't feel the pain: adrenaline was pumping, blood was on his teeth, and he felt good. Rolling adroitly to his feet, the Beast sprinted at the minotaur on all fours.

This time the creature was ready. And now it was really mad. As the Beast got close, it side- stepped and swung its axe, forcing him to jump over it. He landed, spun and charged again. He could do this all day. The minotaur turned. Its eyes widened in surprise to see the Beast already leaping again, but surprised him by swatting him aside with the haft of the axe.

He felt that pain. Stars erupted all around him, and the energy began to fade. He couldn't hear past the ringing in his ears, and his limbs refused to work.

How long he lay there, the Beast didn't know. When he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the battle axe, mere inches from his face.

The minotaur!

He rolled away and came up on all-fours, snarling. Pain shot through his chest as he rolled. “Nope, still injured,” it seemed to say. The Beast slowly, so as not to hurt his ribs, approached the axe. It was basically just the top. The haft was cut at an angle, a hand below the head. Where was the minotaur?

He spotted it. It and the Angel were facing off a little way away, just out of earshot. He seemed to be trying to reason with it. The house was gone, as was the village. Probably destroyed in the fight. In fact, they now seemed to be in a grassy, skyless field.

The minotaur roared. The Beast turned back to see it sprinting, axe haft held out like a spear, at the Angel. He watched as the angel side-stepped and, with inhuman speed, brought the sword down on the minotaur, severing its arm at the elbow. It screamed and dropped the makeshift spear, clutching its stump. The Angle turned and, with one smooth motion, drove his sword into the creature's back.

As it died, the pain in the Beast's side vanished. He looked down in astonishment, poked his ribs to be sure. No, no pain. The blood was gone, too. It was as if the minotaur had never existed, as if there had been no fight.

“You look well,” said the Angel.

The Beast jerked his head up. He hadn't seen the Angel approach. His eyes widened involuntarily.

“What? Did I lose a wing?” The Angel craned his neck, checking.

“No ...” said the Beast, “I think you grew.”

It was true. The Angel was at least an inch taller, and he looked more than a few pounds heavier

in muscle. His wings had acquired a distinctly golden tint, as well.

“I certainly feel well,” the Angel said. “It is as if I had never fought this battle.”

“Same here.”

Awkward silence.

“What do we do now?” The Angel pointed. “This place is empty.”

If only you knew, the Beast thought. But no, the Angel couldn't know. If he found out too soon, the Beast would lose even this tiny redemption.

“There are probably more of them,” the Beast said. “And they're probably not friendly.” The Angel sighed. “Must all things end in bloodshed?”

“Blood is our most precious possession, and losing it our greatest fear.”

“That sounded philosophical,” said the Angel.

“Broken souls do that sometimes,” the Beast said. He was broken. Just not so much as the minotaur, reduced to blind rage. How hadn't the Angel broken?

Abruptly, yet silently, the landscape shifted. The rolling green hills flattened, becoming stone bricks. Walls of the same material erupted all around them. The skyless expanse above them remained unchanged. It should have been pitch black, but the Beast could see just fine. There was no light or darkness here. Colors and shapes simple existed, like paint on a black canvas.

The were in a long, narrow stone brick hallway. It was lined on both walls with art. Paintings, mosaics, engraved images, statues. It stretched away, curving to the right.

The Beast approached the nearest painting, on the left wall. It depicted a man hard at work, tilling the earth with his son beside him. In the background was a house, a woman, and two more children. The whole scene was happy, content. The warmth of it brought a smile to the Beast's face. Who was this fortunate man?

“Why are these images here?” asked the Angel.

The warmth in the Beast's heart vanished, chased off by the icy grip of horror, as he made the connection. Frantically, he hurried down the corridor, looking at the artwork. Footsteps told him the Angel kept pace.

“Hey!” the Angel called. “What is the matter?”

The Beast ignored him. He looked to the right wall, terrified of the images there. Yes, there they were. The very scenes that threatened to suffocate him before stared at him from the wall, accusing. “Why are you running?”

To escape, the Beast thought. But that was stupid. Running couldn't save you from your sins. If it worked that way, the Beast would have been absolved long ago.

There was a flapping sound. The Angel's footsteps stopped, just a moment before he landed in front of the Beast, facing him. Shocked out of his panic, the Beast skidded to a halt. The Angel looked serious, with just a hint of concern.

“I cannot trust you if you continue,” he said. “I need answers, and I know you have them.” The Beast looked the Angel in the eye, but looked away again in shame.

“I will tell you, Angel,” the Beast said. “After we defeat the others.”

“No, that ...”

“Please,” he interrupted, voice breaking a little.

The Angel softened. “I can see real pain in you,” he said. He looked at the Beast intently for a moment, then seemed to make a decision.

“All right. I will trust you.” He held out his hand.

The Beast took it and they shook. They continued down the corridor.

The artwork on both sides of the hall grew more depressing as they went. The Beast avoided

looking at the pieces on either side, but many were compelling. They pulled at his gaze, tempting him. An old, suffocated part of him wanted to look, to appraise their skill and quality. That part belonged to happier times and happier art. These would just drop him into a pit of despair, a pit he might not be able to escape again.

They rounded a final corner. The hall ended abruptly, opening into a large—ther was no other word for it—arena. Including theirs, there were ten openings, each, judging by the closest, leading to a different hall. Between these openings there were seats. Thousands of empty seats, raised above and behind a wall. One set of seats had a large box in the center. That box had a throne.

The Beast and the Angel were not alone.

In the center of the arena, a massive battle raged. The Beast counted twenty-four combatants. That's not possible, he thought. Twenty-one minus one (the minotaur) meant there could not have been more than twenty. There should not be so many. Nine wolves, three different chimeras, a giant spider. Others were twisted monstrocities, unidentifiable. There was another angel, blue-tinted rather than gold. She was fighting a freshly-blooded vampire.

The Beast glanced at his gold-tinted ally. The Angel was counting as well. He stiffened. “We have to ...” He started forward, but the Beast put a paw on his shoulder.

“Don't do anything stupid.”

“But ...”

“Look,” the Beast said, “the less we fight, the more like ly we are to survive.”

“We cannot stand idle,” said the Angel. “If we help her, we will have another ally.”

This isn't about allies! The Beast wanted to shout. But he couldn't. He had to ... A scream pierced the air. Not a scream of pain or bellow of rage. There were plenty of those already. No, this was the confused, terrified wail of a child. Every creature froze, spinning to see a small peasant child run, crying, out of an opening to the Beast's left. Chasing the child was a great serpent.

In those few instants, the Beast saw the hungry glint in the monsters' eyes. An easy kill.

Good, the Beast thought. We can strike at their backs while they vie for the child. He would attack one of the chimeras, and the Angel--

“NO!”

There was a mighty gust of wind, catching the Beast off-guard. The Angel soared in a shallow arc, rushing to the aid of the child, who had tripped.

The Beast cursed himself and sprinted after the Angel. Even considering what he'd already done, using a child as bait would be a new low. The child had to die—they all did—but he didn't want to do it himself. And he couldn't expect the Angel to just let it happen. For now? The battle.

He threw himself at one of the chimeras. The thing's goat head bleated angrily as his crash- landing knocked it over. They tumbled to the earth—it was earth now—in a tangled heap. Neither was able to stand for the other. Not the clever sophistry of two fencing masters, but the instinct-guided, adrenaline-fueled bloodbath of two monsters. The fight took place on a different level. The Beast himself only got brief glimpses of the battle; pure instinct reigned.

At some point, he killed the chimera, ripping off its third head. Next came one of the abominations, then the giant spider. Each death healed his wounds and strengthened him. He would finish this battle larger and stronger than he started. Unfortunately, everything else got deadlier at the same pace. The nine wolves had doubled in size, the serpent had grown razor-sharp ridges along its back, the two angels ... Well, they too had managed to somehow grow more glorious. Their tints had become solid colors, their feathers and armor becoming either purest gold or cobalt.

The ground shook. Again, the battle paused, each combatant looking for the source of the tremor. All that remained were the two angels flanking the child, the pack of wolves, and the Beast. The remains of the snake and the final abomination faded away, forgotten memories.

One of the wolves took advantage of the distraction. It darted in, leaping on the child. The child's shrieks of pain cut off as the wolf clamped down on its neck.

The Blue Angel cried out and thrust with her sword, sticking the creature with a fatal strike, but the other eight tackled her. The Beast made no move to help. She had to die. Moving with too-perfect unity, the wolves made short work of her. By the time the Gold Angel turned to help, she was disarmed and missing a wing, blood pumping from the stump and a gash in her arm.

The Beast helped now that the Gold Angel was watching. He knew exactly what the Angel was thinking. If they could kill a wolf, the Blue Angel would heal. The wolves retreated as they charged, however, clearly realizing the same thing. The Gold Angel yelled in rage, sprinting after the closest one. The Beast looked at the dying Blue Angel. If she lived, he might not get his redemption. The Gold Angel wasn't looking.

The Beast flicked one long claw through her neck. It sliced easily, opening the artery wide. That, combined with the other wounds, should leave her with only seconds.

Ahead, the Gold Angel swung his sword in wide arcs, holding off the eight wolves. He wouldn't last long alone. Why were they toying with him? What were they waiting for? As the Beast began to run forward, he felt the familiar growing sensation: his claws got longer, the soreness and battle fatigue vanished.

The Blue Angel was dead.

The Beast glanced back and saw two things. First, the fast-fading corpse. Second, the snarling wolf flying at him. What!?

The second sight registered just soon enough for him to jerk his neck out of the way. The wolf instead got a mouthful of fur. The Beast dropped down to all-fours, squaring off against his opponent, confused. This wolf was dead; or it was supposed to be. The Blue Angel killed it. Why was it back?

He spared a glance for his ally. The Angel was surviving, barely. The pack moved with perfect cohesion. Too perfect. One wolf would act, dodging a strike it could not see. And yet, they fought in silence. No cries, no audible communication. Just those intense, red eyes, burning with the same hatred.

The same hatred.

Realization hit the Beast like a charging wolf. So did the charging wolf. He cursed himself for getting distracted as they fell. It all made sense now. The cohesion, the resurrected wolf, this wolf attacking him one-on-one suicidally. It was all calculated. The wolves were the same person, appendages to one soul. Well, this time that soul miscalculated.

The Beast raked the wolf with his claws, then kicked. The wolf flew off him in a spray of blood. He rolled back to his feet and ran at the wolf. The thing was a third his size, and he had claws. The creature had broken a leg when it landed. It tried to attack, jumping awkwardly. The Beast clawed it aside. His claws ripped the neck open, and it spun through the air like a blood-spewing catherine wheel. He turned to the Angel.

Four of the wolves had broken away from that fight and were already running at him. The Beast charged. If he let himself be surrounded, he was dead. So he fought aggressively. He was the predator here. They tried to encircle him, but he moved too quickly. Get in, strike, get out. Use their tactics. Wear them down. They switched roles. The wolves went on the defensive, sort of. They would bait him with one wolf, then try to flank him with the other three. He got a bite on the thigh that way.

It wasn't deep, his fur was too thick, but it was enough to spike his adrenaline to new heights. It flooded his system, washing away the pain. Everything sharpened.

The Beast grabbed the wolf attached to his thigh by the neck. It wouldn't let go. Everything moved slowly. The other three wolves were attacking, seeing him hindered. He grabbed the jaw of the creature and prized it open. Then jerked it sideways for good measure, snapping it with a satisfying crack and yelp. It struggled, but he kept his grip on its neck. Another leapt from his left.

Heaving, the Beast swung his wolf by the neck and smacked the leaping one out of the air. A third hit him in the back, staggering him only slightly. He threw his furry bludgeon at the fourth— perfect hit—grabbed the third and slammed it to the ground in front of him, then stomped with all his weight. Ribs cracked, snapped in two. It yelped in a strangled way.

Two down.

Again, the ground shook violently, this time accompanied by loud, explosive bangs, like someone was trying to break down God's door.

There was some truth to that.

The shaking stopped, the skyless expanse quieted. The Beast still had two wolves to kill. Where were they?

There they were. He charged. They ran, but not quickly enough. One limped, falling behind. That was probably the one he hit out of the air. He caught it, dispatched it quickly, and ran after the final wolf. It was fast. The speed of desperation, he supposed. It was breathing raggedly. He leapt with a burst of speed, reaching, stretching. Just managing to grab it by the tail, he held tight as he crashed to the ground. His grip pulled the creature into a mad flailing roll. He came out on top. The wolf struggled beneath the Beast, trying to get free. It scratched and kicked. A futile struggle. He killed it with a flick.

He stood and turned. The Angel ran, half-gliding, past, chasing his own final wolf. He hadn't fared so well as the Beast. His cuirass had fallen off, somehow, and he was bleeding from five or six bad wounds. He wouldn't live long unless that last wolf died first.

The Beast could kill him. He could take his life back, find redemption another way. With two thousand years, he could do a lot of good. He could ....

Don't be a fool, he thought to himself. You kill him, all those wolves come back and you lose everything. Besides, you don't deserve that chance.

So the Beast ran. Chasing the wolf, but also fleeing the guilt. It would be over soon. He passed the Angel and caught up to the wolf. It was nearly dead itself. Only pure adrenaline was keeping it moving. He tackled it, wrapping his arms around its neck as they rolled. They came to a stop. The beast squeezed and twisted. No yelp came.

Again he felt that growing sensation. He rose and faced the Angel. At his full height, he was probably a hand or two taller than the Angel. Neither of them breathed hard. The growing was always complete, leaving them as if no fight had happened.

“I feel,” said the Angel, “as if there are no more.”

“You're right.” The Beast said. “That wolf was the last one.”

“Now what?”

The Beast hesitated. He knew what. No matter how much you prepared yourself, dying was

difficult to accept. He steeled himself.

“Now, you have to kill me.” the Beast said.

The Angel started. “No,” he said slowly, “No, I will not slay an ally.”

The Beast had been worried about this. It had to be a kill. Suicide was not possible here.

Besides, even in this wrecked state, he wasn't weak enough to take his own life. And so he had to play all his cards.

“I am not your ally,” said the Beast. “I am your enemy.”

“Did we not just fight beside one another?” The Angel looked confused. “That is not the behavior of enemies, Beast.”

“You don't understand.” The Beast paused. Would it work? “I am everyone's enemy. I do not care if you hate me or fear me, but you WILL remember me.”

They locked eyes. The Beast could see as first recognition, then shock, then disbelief shaped the Angel's eyes. He knew that phrase would work.

“I see you understand. That's right. I cheated them. I ruined them. I killed them. I was the one you could never catch, Arbiter.”

The disbelief was replaced with a growing hatred. His golden feathers took on a distinctly red tint. The Beast pressed on.

“At my command, you were torn from your family. You will never see them again.” His voice broke. Saying it aloud made it worse. If this Angel didn't kill him, the weight of his sins would probably crush his worthless soul. He looked away.

“Seline is dead now. As are Simon and Elina. Your friends are dead too. I killed them. I destroyed the city.” He was rambling now. The guilt pressed on all sides, and they were all coming out like a burst wineskin. The Beast realized he was nearly crying. He felt tired. Guilty. Ashamed.

“I can see that you've changed,” said the Angel.

The Beast looked up. The hatred was gone. Was that ... sorrow?

“Were your crimes against me alone, I would forgive you.”

“But ----” Forgiveness? That wasn't part of the plan.

“However,” he continued, “your crimes affected many others. And they are unable to forgive or condemn.”

The Beast closed his eyes. Would it hurt, the afterlife?

“You are worthy of death.”

He bowed his head. There was a clink of armor, a swish of the blade. Blackness.

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