For those of you looking forward to the eBook release of Rise to Hope on Dec 30, please enjoy this first chapter excerpt!
Whence the Angel Queen returns, Celestia will divide and the chosen must fall from grace forever.
Angels surrounded her on all sides as they ascended into a moonlit sky. Yet, she’d never felt more alone as she left everything she’d ever known behind. Her body jolted tiny bits of lightning at every stroke of her wings. She gulped in deep breaths but the air had thinned and her limbs tingled with exertion. She wasn’t ready for a flight to Celestia. She’d only managed one virgin flight since she’d recovered from her ordeal, and now she’d thrust her wings more times than she could count to ascend into the darkness. Wingbeats thundering all around her assured her that she wasn’t alone in the struggle. But these angels were a legion of trained, ancient warriors. Azrael may be their new queen, but she was a queen with a mortal heart and brand new wings.
The only reminder that kept her from swirling into the pit of bleak darkness beneath her feet was Gabriel’s limp form, a lingering silhouette in the flutter of white wings. Four angels held him aloft by a stretcher with poles long enough so that they could fly unhindered as they bore his weight. They’d fashioned the contraption in the Forests of Zarathustra before their departure. She’d never seen Gabriel injured, and to see his wings burnt from Hyanthia’s demonfire worried her. She’d tried to heal him. Her Light had reflected from him as if he were encased in oil. Whatever he’d endured keeping her safe wasn’t just skin-deep.
She looked skyward again, swallowing her worry and fear. A city of angels awaited her and she didn’t know what to expect. These were the creatures who’d cast her from Celestia as a babe simply because she had been born without wings, and she didn’t imagine they’d welcome her back with open arms now that she’d found a way to regain them.
As if to answer her thoughts, a warm glow permeated the darkness that promised a city with warmth and Light awaiting her return. But when she closed her blue eye, the one that could only see righteousness, the horizon took on a greenish glow. Her emerald eye that was the result of what she was—a hybrid—served to show her the evil in the world. She’d learned to trust it to show her those hidden truths. The city still glowed, but she felt its malice and superiority. This was a city of angels who tossed out their own, taxed their caretakers, and stole back lost souls they wished to use. Even if this was her home, it was the embodiment of everything she despised, and it was her mission to fix it.
The legion slowed when they spotted the golden glow on the horizon, sensing its warmth and promise only a few moments after Azrael, only their wingbeats increased with eagerness and Azrael knew they couldn’t feel what she felt.
When she searched their faces for even one who dreaded entering the city, she found a curious stare of an angel one who’d lingered close to her the entire flight. A permanent layer of snow-white stubble around his chin made him look older than the typical fresh-faced angels.
“We’re nearly there,” he said with a gruff voice of authority. “You’ll be meeting the Seraphim soon. Prepare yourself.” He was close enough that his words survived the upscale of winds created by the legion in flight.
He didn’t seem unfriendly, even with Azrael’s green eye opened wide to appraise him. And the way he looked at Gabriel with genuine concern made her want to trust him. “I’m ready,” she assured him, even though her muscles ached and the icy pit in her stomach made her want to retch.
The legion proceeded her into a fresh layer of clouds that weren’t of the atmosphere that bogged around the city. She sensed the fine dust of Creation, Divine Material, that permeated the very air in this place. Even in Manor Saffron’s Inner Sanctum, a place with walls lined with the golden stuff, she’d never sensed so much Divine Material all in one place.
Only one long silver crag extended an arm in greeting, the rest of the city hidden by the supernatural mist. The clouds solidified when the angels touched down, jolts of lightning swirling up into grand pillars of white that framed the entrance to the city.
Azrael kept a watchful eye on the four who carried Gabriel. They landed in unison with far more trained grace than she would have granted the angels weighed down with battle gear. Golden spears glinted at their backs and their chests heaved with a fine layer of metallic sheen.
Their amethyst gazes scanned the skies, looking past her and into the pitch she swam through, making the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. Even here, the demons could follow, she realized with a jolt of terror. When their wings drooped to graze the silvered ground, she forced herself to relax and prepare for her own landing.
Her wings protested when she held them as wide as she could to help her glide to the platform. She still came in too fast, skidding over her own feet and blushing with both exhaustion and embarrassment.
The other angels weren’t watching her though, their attention now turned to the gleaming golden gates that had appeared from the mist. Thunder sprang across the horizon, hinting at the vast girth of a city underneath the canopy of power.
The gates parted and a crack shocked through her chest, the force of the city opening its maw sending a warm blast that flung her hair away from her face. Light filled her vision as the city revealed itself to her, unveiling a place she’d only known from dreams and nightmares.
When her vision adjusted, a sea of amethyst eyes broke through the mist to settle their gazes on her. She felt so small in that moment, and even though her wings trembled, she forced them to fan out. They’d once been as black as midnight, the truth of her birth. But after she’d been doused with Light and her own magic, her hair and wings were now as white as any angels. So she spread them wide and proud, telling herself the lie that she was one of them.
While she’d expected a homecoming, she hadn’t imagined she’d be faced with a field of angels that spread deep into the city. They weren’t dressed as civilians, as she’d expected. Light gleamed off breastplates and glinted off the brutal spiked wing-arches of an army. Golden whispers of power promised they all wielded weapons infused with Divine Material—the only weapons in the world that could kill a demon—or an angel.
Anxiety threatening to make her knees buckle, Azrael found herself looking to Gabriel for strength. He’d become more than just her mentor. He was the only one left she could trust, could turn to when she needed him.
Throughout the flight, he’d been a soft form in the darkness drifting between his caretakers, just a glimmer of hope that his strength would follow her into this new place. Now, having reached Celestia, it bled its cruel Light onto his frame with unforgiving harshness. She sucked in a breath when she couldn’t deny that his condition had undoubtedly worsened. The Light revealed the deep sunken-in pockets of his cheeks and eye sockets. His skin, which had been a fine marble hue, was now a sickly beige. His wings were the only thing that looked the same as they had after the flames, ghastly appendages that had once been majestic and beautiful were now charred with crusted black edges of broken wings. She wished he would open his eyes, just for a moment, to show her that no matter what his body endured, his soul was still in there somewhere.
The scruffy-faced angel huffed a sound of disapproval at the sight. “It looks rough, but he’s immortal,” he reminded her.
She forced herself to look into the angel’s purple eyes. She was familiar with the deep aura of an ancient soul that peered back, but was surprised by the wisdom she found there. This was an angel she wanted to trust, especially when Gabriel couldn’t stand with her now.
The angel’s face softened into a smile. “Gabriel won’t let a bit of Darkness take him away from you,” he said, his words just loud enough for her to hear.
“Majesty,” a voice boomed and the scruffy-faced angel stepped aside, revealing a majestic creature with four wings. A brilliant gaze bore into hers, wiping out any hope of her ability to search the angel’s soul. His eyes glowed like the rare species known as Hallowed, a being with Divine Material infused with their soul. Azrael studied him, but doubted that he was born this way. He was too surreal, too incredible. This was the Seraphim, ruler of Celestia, proud and gorgeous. He flexed his unique wings, each adorned with fine, golden chains. The motion swept a pleasant chime across the warm breeze that exhaled from the city. “It’s an honour to meet you.”
He bowed, the four arches of his wings rolling down with him. Azrael clapped her jaw shut when she’d realized it’d dropped open. When she’d imagined the Seraphim, she’d painted a picture of a cruel beast who would tower over her and demand she bow to him. Instead, he’d called her “Majesty” before lowering himself so far that his pristine wings draped across his shoulders and swept like a feathered cape across the ground.
When he rose up again and offered her a smile, Azrael wanted to hope that she’d been terribly wrong. “You must be exhausted,” he said. His smooth voice glided over her with friendly promise.
She needed a test. If the Seraphim truly meant to respect her claim to Celestia’s rule, then he wouldn’t be too proud to honor a custom of humility. She straightened her spine and flared out her wings as she approached him. He gave her a bemused smile when she offered both hands, face-down, and waited.
He didn’t hesitate and grazed his fingertips under hers. She almost fell for it, the friendly demure and the acceptance of her authority—until she felt his power. It was a white-hot heat of the Light curled around icy cruelty that speared through her palms and seared up her elbows. She jolted from the shock and he curled his fingers away, his smooth lips wrapping over his teeth in a sneer.
His face flashed back to normalcy as if she’d imagined his anger, as much as his Hallowed-like eyes could allow him look normal. Even if she couldn’t see through the barrier of Light that blared through him, she’d felt a wrongness that surpassed even her contact with demons. There was something in his soul that terrified her, and she stiffened even as the blood drained from her face.
When he snapped his hands back to his sides, his wings flared and he spat an order. “Take the Outcast,” he shouted and a group of warriors broke formation.
Before Azrael had a chance to react, Gabriel had been seized and drawn out of her sight beyond the shoulders of a hundred angels with judging, amethyst eyes.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Azrael hissed and Light flooded her gaze. The Divine Material etched into her tattoo that wound up her spine worked with ease in a city that thrived with angels poised so close to the heavens. She’d completed her Acceptance, a trial that embedded a tattoo of raw Divine Material into her skin and established a connection with the Light, the very essence of Creation that the Seraphim so desired. He may have found a way to wrap the Light around his soul, but it wasn’t something he’d earned through a commune with the Divine. She’d survived their judgment, and she would show him what it meant to truly wield their power.
“Make no mistake,” Azrael sneered. “I am your Queen, and Gabriel was the only angel to see to my protection on Terra. He’s not to be harmed.”
The Seraphim nodded as if he’d intended that all along. “Of course, Majesty. He’s to be treated right away, I assure you.”
She searched the crowd of angels, but Gabriel was nowhere to be seen.
All of the angels watched Azrael expectantly. Now that Gabriel was gone, the tension in their shoulders eased and they waited patiently for the Seraphim’s next orders. Did they believe she could be controlled as long as they held Gabriel? She stiffened and tried to look unimpressed. “Fine, do what you wish with him.”
The Seraphim studied her. She buried all her feelings for the blue-eyed angel deep into the jagged, dark place in her soul. She knew now that the icy shadow where she hid herself was the piece of her that was part of the demon, Xorn, evil and terrifying, but it was a power she would use to her advantage.
The Seraphim’s gaze was lingering, but he didn’t press her. He rustled his wings in a great clatter of golden chains as if displeased by her reaction. “Well then. Now that you’ve returned home, I suggest you introduce yourself to your people.” He gave her a flat smile. “They’ve all gathered to meet you.”
Her gaze swept once again through the army, but instead of desperately searching for Gabriel, like she wanted to do, she forced herself to gauge what she was up against. A sea of amethyst eyes encased by eyelashes of white lace stared back. They didn’t shuffle or murmur as a crowd of people tended to do. They stood rigid and silent like a spring that the Seraphim could let loose with a single word. She wondered if any among them were really on her side, but now was not the time to test Gabriel’s promise that there would be a rebellion in the Seraphim’s ranks, if she knew where to look for it.
Her eye was naturally drawn to the one discrepancy in the crowd. A spark of green, a female peeking through a row of winged men.
Azrael hadn’t expected to find women in Celestia, but she knew that some had been taken. Aedium, the angelic word for those born without wings, were discarded and thrown to Terra. But some, the females who accepted the evil that fed on them as infants drifting to Terra, had been stolen. Gabriel had told her as much, admitted that the Seraphim wished to use them to understand what power it was that could change a male angel to a female one in order to survive the massive dose of evil they encountered on their downward journey.
Hearing about the kidnappings had been one thing, but to see the evidence of it sent Azrael’s legs tripping over themselves as she barreled through the angels towards one of her own. The Seraphim may tell her that the angels were her people, but she was truly Aedium. Even if she’d regained her wings, she’d always be one of them.
“Are you all right?” Azrael huffed when she reached the green-eyed girl. She reached for her, but the girl shied away. “What have they done to you?”
The girl blinked at Azrael with…indignation? “What have they done to me? Whatever do you mean, your Majesty?”
Azrael took a step back and her gaze finally unhinged from the girl’s magnetizing emerald stare. She’d seen green, the color of her past and her anguish. But when she looked at the rest of her, she took in the bangles and gems that dripped from her wrists and neck, her cheeks that glittered with expensive powders, and a gown that puffed at her waist with such perfect angles that it likely cost an entire Windborn’s purchase price.
“Aren’t you from Manor Saffron?” Azrael asked, her voice an embarrassed whisper.
The girl broke the air with a hideously charming laugh. “Great Divine, no.” She smoothed the single wrinkle that Azrael had caused in her dress. “I was raised under House Principalities. When I had come of age, I was brought back to Celestia, of course.”
Azrael blinked. She’d heard of House Principalities, one of the smaller Manors run far to the west. There were four Manors in total, with Manor Saffron being the largest.
When Azrael didn’t reply and continued to stare at the girl, she added, “Manor Saffron may create queens, but House Principalities brings their children home.”
A spark of anger flared at the girl’s smug tone. Before she could make the situation worse, one of the angels snaked a hand around the girl’s waist, careless of how he crushed into her plumed dress, and held her tight. “Majesty,” he said with a respectful, but stern, nod. His bland stare and possessive hold on the girl as she curled into his chest told her everything she needed to know about her error.
Azrael’s fingernails bit into her palm as she eased away from the pair.
The crowd parted as the Seraphim made his way to Azrael’s side. “I’m afraid you haven’t been taught much of our ways,” he said, frowning into the crowd. Azrael followed his gaze, hoping to see something in the sea of judgment that would tell her she wasn’t alone. Instead, her faux pas had only served the cast a fog of disapproval through the crowd. They watched her in a predatory way, as if she only had one more chance before they shredded her to pieces on the crag’s entrance to Celestia.
“I fear you’re unprepared to greet your people.” He rustled his wings. “Come. We go to Principat.”
With that, he swept through the crowd that parted at his first step. Azrael swallowed. Only a moment’s hesitation and she straightened and followed the Seraphim as he guided her through the maze of golden streets paved with Light. She didn’t look back.
The last thing Azrael wanted to do was to step foot into Celestia’s City Centre. It was everything she’d imagined, a pinnacle of angelic judgment and righteousness that would have made the boys of Manor Saffron proud.
Here, Principat was a massive dome that towered over the city with golden wings of its own. The city blurred her vision with its unrelenting Light and the massive wings boasted the great majority of it. Each feather gleamed with supernatural glory. Her eyes watered as she stared, unable to look away from the mass of power and wealth all in one place. If she would hazard a guess, she’d say this very tower held more Divine Material than all of Manor Saffron’s earnings in the last hundred years.
“Welcome to Principat,” the Seraphim said with a wave of his hand, as if the entire city were his own creation. Gabriel had told her that Celestia had been a gift from the Divine themselves, not something the angels had built. But as she stared at the display of power named Principat, she wondered if this, at least, was the Seraphim’s creation. Where had he gotten so much Divine Material?
She followed him deeper into the white haze of Light and entered a long string of gardens that followed them to the entrance. Exotic flowers, for which she had no name, bloomed and their sweet scent clung to her sweat-dampened robes. She’d thought the blur simply her vision losing its strength in the presence of so much Light, yet when she licked her lips she found a sweet layer of moisture caressing her tongue.
A quick glance at the sky showed only more of the glare that never ended. If any clouds hid in the city’s embrace, she couldn’t see them.
With no answers coming from above, she looked below. After a moment’s strain, she spotted silver glinting under dark soil. Droplets flung themselves over the foliage in a fine mist. She grinned, recognizing one of Manor Saffron’s engineered contraptions. Even the angels purchased Manor Saffron’s wares.
Her grin dissipated remembering the wingless Windborn girl. Perhaps purchase was not the right word. Manipulated, deceived, and stolen were terms far better suited to anything of value she’d find in this place.
She lifted her wings, though they ached, to keep them from dragging the ground as they scaled gleaming marble steps to Principat’s doors. They parted at the Seraphim’s presence with a soft boom that sent a whisper of power exploring over her skin. Even though this was a place of Light, something she’d grown accustomed to as her ally, it felt different here, weighted by the Seraphim’s will as if his mere presence tainted it.
He entered into the brilliance as if this were his home, and it likely was. She swallowed and followed him inside. Where the city strained her eyes, Principat’s stomach was the embodiment of the sun itself. Her vision useless, she followed the soft clinking of the Seraphim’s wing adornments to find her way.
Her own Light inside her struggled to come to the surface. When she commanded it to focus on her vision, she could finally cut through the white sheen of Principat. Dull glass-stained windows impossibly bleached by power dabbled the walls like dead ravens. Azrael imagined they must have been beautiful, allowing natural light to shine in. But with the oppressive energy permeating the very air, they seemed to wilt and bow against the strain.
Underfoot a rug crunched beneath her bare feet. What should have been a red carpet was blotched and trampled, even though the short fray of its edge told her that it was relatively new. She had no doubt now that Principat had not always been this way, a gathering of the Seraphim’s will and need for power. She steeled herself when they approached yet another doorway, one with pulsating runes that made her feel ill when she lingered beneath them.
Queen Ceres had employed a similar device to keep visitors at a disadvantage when they braved an opportunity to face her. She recalled how the runes had swirled with a mirage of life and death, a cycle that made her weak in the knees.
The Seraphim’s power was only judgment, serving no other purpose than to make sure she was well aware of that fact. This was his domain and the pits of her soul knew that if she entered, she’d be subject to his perception of right and wrong.
The Seraphim disappeared into the brilliance, leaving her to tremble with indecision at the entrance. She needed to negotiate with him, or at least stand her ground so that he didn’t completely dominate her from the very start. This was her first impression, one she needed to be strong and lasting. Even knowing that, her shoulders trembled with the effort to stand up straight and endure the weighty power of the runes ringing the frame.
“It’ll pass,” a familiar voice said behind her.
Azrael swirled in surprise. She’d been so focused on the Seraphim that she hadn’t noticed the scruffy-faced angel follow them all the way here. She stared at him in complete shock that he’d come this far, somehow endured the Light even when it made her weak. It tore fear through her that she’d judged him entirely wrong. “Who are you?” she snapped.
The angel cocked his head with a frown. “A friend of Gabriel’s.” He offered a jerky salute. “Call me Guard.”
“Just, Guard?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
He gave a nod, then his gaze swept past her into the brilliance. Even here, the light flecks of purple shone like a jewel in the Seraphim’s Light. “I’ll be here when you’re finished with him.”
Finished with him, Azrael repeated the words to herself. Guard sounded so genuine, as if he believed she held all the power in this incredible and terrifying place.
That thought lifted her spirits, as well as her wings, and she stepped into the blazing glory of the audience chamber.
She hadn’t expected pain, but it wrecked its way through her as she crossed the threshold to the Seraphim’s domain. A thousand whispering voices searched her with scrutinizing clarity, ripping through her soul and searching for all of her past sins. She reacted to the invasion with Light, her own surge of power that blasted as she threw the gates in her soul open. It was a reckless move, but she was cornered. Light, a warm and friendly kind that swarmed up her spine spread around her like a shield.
The room came into view as the air cleared, the Seraphim’s whispers retreating. A row of thrones appeared, each occupied with overly-decorated angels. The Seraphim took his seat upon the highest and grandest in the room: a glistening spine-backed throne garnished with crystals. He gave her a smug smile as he settled himself, his four wings fluttering behind him in a cascade of echoing chimes that sounded eerie and wrong in this place. Gold specks danced around him like motes in the air, but Azrael knew that here, his power was a tangible, terrifying thing.
The row of angels with half-closed eyes who watched her with mild interest. They worried her the most. They poised in their chairs like dolls, their wings gone a golden hue and disappearing into the scenery behind them as if they were nothing but a mirage. When one blinked, she startled.
“They aren’t sure what to make of you,” the Seraphim told her in a purring voice.
Azrael turned her blazing gaze on him, every fibre of her being straining to stand her ground and keep his searching whispers at bay. “Why have you brought me here?” she demanded. Clearly this was a test, or a means to force her to submit. Azrael flared her wings as she’d seen Gabriel do when threatened, hoping it made her look strong.
Instead, the Seraphim smirked at her posture. “To teach you of our ways, of course.”
“You mean to put me in my place,” she shot back.
The Seraphim openly laughed. The sound was a guttural, tangible thing that scratched across her senses. Then the sound abruptly ceased, his golden eyes going wide. “You made a fool of me in front of my people.” He stabbed a finger at the doorway. “Bringing in the Outcast? You should have left him on Terra to rot.”
Azrael snarled, not caring if the Seraphim could blip her out of existence right there. She hadn’t sacrificed everything so that the one, sole surviving piece of her heart could be taken away. “I believe you are the one who made yourself a fool, snatching Gabriel away as a hostage. Do you fear me so much that you believe that can control me? Pathetic.”
Heat broiled the room and her hair whipped away from her face in stinging lashes as the Seraphim’s whispers turned into roars. The row of angels twitched, but otherwise kept their eerie, dead stares on her.
As their wills battled with zaps of electricity through the air, the Seraphim relaxed, to Azrael’s surprise, easing back into the thin curve of his throne as if he hadn’t been angered at all. “You are but a child. I forget what it is like, to be so young.” He waved his hand, dismissing her outburst. “You must be concerned I’ve taken your only mentor away from you. However, fear not, I do have a replacement in mind.”
Fear coiled in Azrael’s belly like an iron snake. “What if I do not wish for a new mentor?”
The Seraphim hummed thoughtfully. “Change is difficult for a child, I am told. But I assure you, I have prepared the most honored historian of Celestia to guide you.” He leaned on his knees and offered her a smug grin. “Damian. He will teach you what an angel must know. You’ve been tainted by the Terran way of life. I see that now.”
His whispers still lingered at the back of her neck, making the hairs stand on end. He’d indeed been searching her, and whatever snippets of her life he’d been able to extract, he believed her to be human. “I sacrificed everything to undo Terran ways.” Even if the Seraphim cast angelic children to the lands below, it was the humans who endorsed their slavery. They bought and sold her kind like trinkets to be collected. No matter how low the Seraphim was on the scales of morality, humans would always be the chain that dangled underneath like the gold strands across his quadrant of wings.
“After you’ve proven you’ve absorbed Damian’s teachings,” the Seraphim continued as if she hadn’t spoken at all, “then I will determine if you are capable of assuming Celestia’s rule.”
Her eyes widened at that. “You mean to give up the throne?” she asked doubtfully.
He gave her a solemn nod. “By law, you who have been touched by the Divine and given a second life are Celestia’s true ruler.” His features grew dark. “Once it’s earned, of course.”
Light pulsed in her as a wave of anger sent her power seeping into the air. The air shimmered around the Seraphim, and to Azrael’s horror, he licked his lips as if he drank in her rage.
“I’ve already passed the trial of the Acceptance,” Azrael reminded him, pulling her emotion and power into herself as much as her control would allow. She had no hope of fighting this terrifying, immortal creature. Not now, when she knew so little about him and her own powers were drained and weak. “I’ve regained my wings, earned the royal magic. Is that not enough?”
The Seraphim gave her a cocked, white brow. She felt silly, realizing that somehow, he’d accomplished something similar as she. He rose his two extra wings high, as if to demonstrate his own trophy that pronounced his claim to the throne. “My magic triumphs yours,” he told her, not in a way that was arrogant, but a flat fact. “To give you the throne now would be folly. I will not hand over rule to a child. You must come of age.”
She struggled to recall anything she’d learned about Alexandria, the only other Aedium who’d become the Queen of Angels. But in all the documents she’d ever come across, Alexandria had never entered Celestia. Azrael wilted, realizing that she was alone in this endeavor.
She bit her lip before nodding, the best version of a bow that her pride would allow. “Then I wish to begin my learning.”
Approval painting his face free of any marred lines, he swept his fingers to the door. The weight of his oppression and searching scrutiny dissipated, allowing her to take the first full breath since she’d entered the room. “Then go. Guard will show you the way.”
The tips of her ears burned with rage as she turned from him. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of her respect by shuffling on her feet so that she faced him through to her departure.
His chuckle followed her and the whispers finally united enough for her to hear their words. “You are Gabriel’s creation, indeed.”
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