(Content warning: violence, gore)
Hope ran weak through the burning canyons on a black steed coated in congruous ash. Flames spread in the distance behind like a trail of billowing dust, shrouds of blaze penetrated only by soaring arrows and frantic soldiers. Cries of both command and fear cut wounds into the silent air like the fires did the midnight darkness, and wood, burned to brittleness, cracked beneath the weight of armor. Those who did not plunge into the shadowy abyss ran in opposing directions, adrenaline guiding either decision.
Some ran farther into the faraway night, towards the tremendous castle that watched its flaming cliffs in considerate contempt unbefitting of an edifice too caught in conflagration. Retreat.
Others ran deeper into the fray, closer in pursuit of a single flame indistinguishable against the raising inferno. Advance.
Either frontier was one that needed reinforcement. Yet, in the same hand, either frontier seemed unapproachable, for passage through the divided lands was permitted only by a trail of bridges that connected a network of disconnected cliffs. These bridges, burning and crumbling, were a wager of fate itself for one to even think of traversing.
But many soldiers did. And many fell.
At the forefront of this battle as well as the very cause of it, atop a prideful mare, clad in ashen armor, torch in hand, and feeble with strength borne solely of necessity, Hope Nightingale rode on into the night to which she was the guiding light.
An arrow screeched across her steel-plated shoulder, its journey too angular and far for it to find purchase in metal or flesh. But the cutting presence against her armored body was enough to further crack the fragile resolve she desperately clung to, and she tensed, instinctively crouching as she urged with every thought her steed to hurry. Moments stretched into an infinite life of panic until she passed a patch of brush, leaving a distant archer seething with rage at her survival. He cursed this horrid disturbance of an ignorant peace and barked for his fellow soldiers to clear the path; a group of knights was charging on horseback from the direction of that cliff’s outpost. Men locked in stupor dove out of the way, and plated hooves slammed from dirty rock to arid wood.
Hope’s gaze frantically threw itself over her shoulder, countless fears overlapping one another but failing to supersede the fear of being captured. She watched as their horses, like many before, skidded to a halt at the wake of the flames thrashing into life at the end of the bridge. The stallions protested, neighing to their furious riders in fright. The castle burned in the distance.
She turned forward, breaths struggling to squeeze their way out of her helmet, and focused on where she was going. The blood boiling in her body made the world stark with contrast, every moment and thing defined and distinct, bold in the face of chaos. With wide, tearing eyes glaring into the gloom and tight lungs quaking with the beating of hooves below her, she set her gaze upon the next bridge, and the one after, hearing all the distant screams and roaring flames and collapsing debris but also the path ahead and only the path ahead.
The leaves of low brush rustled. Gravel crunched beneath the mare’s rapid stride.
There were no more outposts on the remaining cliffs. Hope had made it past them all, fortunate in the veil of the night to have made it so far and for the battle to only have begun in the most recent moments. Just barely were the people of the kingdom truly realizing the havoc she had begun, and just barely were they snapping into action. She didn’t know what was unfolding in the dozens of dungeons she had abandoned with the gift of destruction, of the others she had left without the help she had so granted herself. As she approached the next bridge and distant soldiers rushed precariously through walls of fire to pursue on foot a quarry already so far away, she doubted every decision she had ever made
In the weeks before, she had decided that she would rather see this place burned to the ground than for her and her sisters to remain. She didn’t want her sisters to perish in the flames, but had trusted that they could escape and fend for themselves. In every fleeting moment of conversation where her plans had never seemed something real, never something that could ever be realized, she had believed in their will and determination. She believed that they would follow.
But now, as the true visage of hell emerged across the kingdom, Hope feared above anything else that she had sentenced her sisters to painful deaths.
Farther behind her than even the most powerful and swiftly shot arrow could ever dream of reaching, two men burst through the crumbling door of an inflamed royal chamber, wheezing through smoke with tearful, bloodshot eyes. They rolled onto the ground as fiery explosions cracked stone and boomed throughout the kingdom. One of the men, old and square jawed with ash upon his golden tunic, yelped as flaming debris fell from above. The other, dressed only in black cloak and hood, sprang to his feet beside him and thrust a hand to the sky.
The charred wood shattered against the translucent dome that appeared around the two men.
Frantically panting, the first man scrambled to stand as the other lowered his hand in assistance. They hurried away from the royal chambers and into the courtyard, which was teeming with bedlam as soldiers rushed in every direction with water and rescued nobility.
“Patrick,” the first growled, “what has guided this plight? My kingdom succumbs to hell! Fire and brimstone seizing all I have built!” He stared in fearful rage at the burning chambers and the adjacent buildings. The horizon was lined with smoke and flame.
“I do not know, King Dameron,” the other man said flatly. “The knights told me only of your peril, I have not yet given thought nor posed inquiry to–”
“My king!” A soldier ran up to the two of them with a bucket of water in hand. “My king! The fallen! They have escaped!”
Their eyes widened in both shock and anger. King Dameron scowled. “What do you speak of, knight?!”
The soldier panted. “The fallen! They have escaped their holdings! The blaze began at their hand! Sir Thaddeus brings tiding of the blaze spread to the canyon bridges! Th–”
King Dameron’s presence grew tenfold and he stomped a single step towards the soldier. “How many fallen gone?”
The soldier flinched and squirmed beneath the king’s scorn. “A-All of them, my king.”
King Dameron swept around and jabbed a powerful finger at Patrick. “FIND THEM!” he roared. “Be upon the canyon’s border and make yield any wretch that dares steal after all we have given! Be there at once!”
Patrick nodded, countenance stern and reflective of every morsel of anger. “As you wish, my king.”
The soldier watched, horrified by so many things, as Sir Patrick of the Arcane vanished in a veil of what could only be described as constellations summoned down from the cosmos. A commanding roar from the king snapped him from his stupor, and he rushed to douse some of countless searing flames.
On the last bridge to the end of the kingdom’s domain, the last gate of hell’s reach, Hope felt her heart skip a beat when a man appeared in scintillating sheaths of shadow mere paces ahead of her. In the moment in which she processed his arrival, he processed what she was doing, and before her mind could completely catch up with what was happening, a pulse of translucent energy was rippling through the dark air and, with a booming impact, had launched her off of her steed.
The mare stumbled and fell to the ground past Patrick. Hope slammed against the edge of the bridge. All of the wind left her body, and soreness squeezed her muscles where it felt as if the metal of her armor itself had bent inward and pressed against her flesh. Disoriented, she lay sprawled upon the ground as Patrick panted.
“It was you,” he sneered, looking past the edge of the canyon, where none but the night moved, and then back to the castle and the chaos in between. “You started this.”
He looked down and saw her torch, whose once fierce flame was faltering. He squeezed his fingers and the flames turned to mere embers.
Dizzy and barely able to see the ground that lay right before her eyes, Hope slurred her words and struggled to find the balance or strength necessary to push herself off the ground.
Patrick reached down and ripped the sword from her side. He tossed it down beside them as he bent down and glared at her. “You are disgusting. What possesses your mind, so weak to delusion, that this is a better life for anyone? What we provide for you is destiny. It is what you were put on this land to do.”
We are more than that, Hope thought, unable to speak but on the verge of tears. We are more.
Her thoughts were pleading with herself, for she feared that he was right. What had become of the others? Were they even still alive? Had she doomed them?
He looked at her as if she were a child, and in an instant, resistance surged into her and washed her doubts away. She believed in her sisters. They were strong, as was she.
“You must yield, Hope. King Dameron will see your end, but the other fallen will be spared if you relent.”
The mare snorted with legs flailing for purchase. Patrick turned his head to it and his expression darkened. “Shut up.”
It whinnied and continued to flail. His nostrils flared and he quickly stuck out a hand. Blue static trickled in his palm, and instantly the mare was petrified, locked in place as electricity coursed through its body. No sound came from it save for constricted breaths. Hope saw her steed in pain and filled with anger that fueled her weary muscles.
Patrick returned his attention to her and scowled. “To think you deem yourself worthy of armor. No fallen in all of history has ever been truly worthy.”
We are more worthy than you.
He raised his left hand, and Hope suddenly moved upright, devoid of control but held up by wisps of that same rippling energy. She met his mad gaze, angry at him and her own weakness, desperate to knock the teeth out of that deranged smile he’d shown her so many times. Those teeth now grit as he squeezed his hand, muscles in his neck tightening as his eyes filled with blackness. Immense, suffocating pressure billowed around Hope’s body. It was enough, she knew, to kill her mercilessly. But she was not the target.
The metal of her armor groaned as it bent. In place of tightness, Hope felt looseness, fragility, as the armor snapped beneath the duress of Patrick’s magic, clanging to the ground in worthless pieces. Hope was exposed for nothing more than the rags she wore beneath. It was all any of them ever wore back in the kingdom.
The mad smile returned to Patrick’s face. He lowered both of his hands and grinned at Hope, who fell back but remained feebly upright.
“So,” he muttered. “There they are.”
As Hope’s damaged wings stretched out from the cuirass’ binding and she tiredly breathed a full breath of air, a powerful, hooved foot slammed against Patrick’s head and sent him instantly to the ground, skull bloody and crushed. The mare sputtered and neighed, thrashing to get to its feet.
Hope, unflinching perhaps due to both fatigue and resolve, glanced to confirm Patrick’s state of health, determined him to be of consequence no longer, and mustered the strength to crawl beside her steed.
She hushed the mare and softly spoke, “It’s okay, girl. It’s okay. We’re safe. You stopped him.”
Her wings fluttered weakly on her back as she brought her arms under the mare. They were horribly deformed, no longer than her forearms and incapable of any flight beyond an extraordinary jump, but instinct still saw them move with her exertion. It had pained her to press them under the cuirass, but no armor available accounted for them. The kingdom would rather see her and her sisters’ wings maimed than used to fly.
It was in more ways than one a means of bringing them down.
Hope grunted and heaved to support her steed. It snorted and whinnied, legs loosely scattered, but managed to find its balance and stand. Hope staggered, pulled herself up, and massaged the mare as she panted and willed strength to return to her body. Fear was most of what she got, but not all.
She looked back and saw several soldiers approaching, far across the cliff but still too close for comfort. Her head turned feverishly to her torch and sword on the ground. She dove for them both, lifting up the torch and its dying embers. She needed this fire. One last flame.
The panic showed in wavering breaths upon the cinders, but by some miracle, it worked, and the flames returned, eager and dancing on the tip of the torch with a vitality that fueled Hope’s. Her steed turned its head away from the flames as she hurried to bring the torch to the wooden rail of the bridge, and in seconds, the fire had spread. Hope picked up her sword and mounted her steed, looking back to see all that she was about the leave behind.
The nearest group of soldiers sprinted towards her, but her gaze rested on them for only a moment.
Farther in the distance, with swords and shields in hand and nothing but rags and damaged wings on their backs, dozens of women leapt from one cliff to the next. They pushed past the soldiers that gathered to stop them, shielding against barrages of arrows and felling enemies that dared try hold them down.
A smile grew on her face, as did tears of countless different emotions in one. Relief and joy and worry and pride, and before she knew it, she had dismounted, sent her steed running, and was charging back towards danger.
Several of her sisters made it to the last cliff as Hope rushed towards the soldiers pursuing her. They brandished swords and rage with little armor, and she brandished so much more. In a powerful, wingbeaten leap, she lunged for them, closing impossible distance in an instant and plunging a sword deep into the heart of a blindsided soldier. Pain stung through her wings, but she was stronger than it and kicked off of the soldier as the others turned to swing. In a single movement she dove backwards and ripped her sword from his flesh; their blades sliced her arms and hers swung for one of their necks.
Blood filled the air and Hope slammed the torch against the temple of the third soldier as the other two fell. In his recoil she found the steadiness to deflect the his jab and expose his torso, then slice across his chest upon the failure of his hasty dodge. She pulled back violently to slash his chest once again, then twisted on her feet and skewered him through the stomach. Strength seeped from his body and he went limp.
Hope drew her blade and turned to see another soldier mere paces away. He lunged for her, sword drawn and thrust before she could react, but in the same instant, his aim wavered and he toppled to the ground with two arrows in his back.
Far but closer than before, two of her sisters stood bows in hand. Behind them, many more leapt onto this final cliff, soldiers of the king struggling to break past walls of fire in pursuit. The women shielded each other, sliced at their enemies, turned to her and met her gaze.
“HOPE! GO!” they shouted.
They were here, all of them. Hope could see them all.
They looked at her and shouted for her to keep going.
Hope’s eyes fell to the torch in her hand, then to the trail of flames that had spread through the canyon.
May the bridges I burn light the way.
She looked up and felt vigor surge into her being. Turning around, she saw the final stretch of open air and the endless, unbroken land that lay beyond it, free from the kingdom’s reach and safe for all of them. The last bridge was already burning, but it would be remiss to say any of them needed one at all.
Hope’s legs kicked into motion, and she was running before her mind and heart had caught up with her. She felt her powerful stride and the flames dancing in her grasp. She felt her sisters behind her, following her, fighting and determined to make it through. She felt wind flowing past her wings and skin, felt a weightlessness that she was always meant to feel. She soared, and then, in a result that made perfect sense in the light of true realized potential, she landed safely on the other end, free from all that had contained her.
She turned and shouted for her sisters to follow. They fought valiantly and pushed forth in leagues, leaving defeated soldiers on the ground as they ran after Hope in pursuit of freedom. She sprinted onward as those nearest took to the air in tremendous leaps, and the wind seemed to bellow in welcome to those who could no longer fly but were always meant to.
As Hope ran strong into a new life of possibility, fallen angels soared on broken wings, shining in the glow of liberating flame.
The night gave way to change.