Emelyn tugged on her shackles—a feeble effort, she knew, but one despair demanded of her. The idonsteel bit into her flesh, and a scab peeled away as the restraints added another gouge to the red-rubbed mess of her wrists. Blood trickled down her arm, striking the floor below, the once-pristine tiles sullied in a rorschach of dried blood; a pitiful reminder of her struggles.
She raised her head, despite the protests of her weathered body; gazed past the armored sister-sentries to the door they protected. A threshold to freedom.
+It is yours to claim. If only you would let go.+
Emelyn twitched at the slithering voice. The words fell on her soul like wind-whipped embers. She gritted her teeth, bowed her head. Her muscles tensed in resistance.
“Leave me alone.” Her voice croaked, throat made bloody and raw from weeks of screaming, crying, begging for answers.
+Your Sisters have abandoned you to die. But not I. I have always been there for you.+
Emelyn howled. “Leave me alone!”
The armored sentries were ignorant to her outbursts. They’d said nothing to her since she’d been dragged back to the City of the Vigilant and imprisoned. Explained nothing. Silent was their vigil, and Emelyn loathed them for it. Physical pain was one thing, but the weeks of silence and averted stares from her Sisters wounded her grievously.
Through swollen eyes and the oily curls of her filthy blonde hair, Emelyn glimpsed movement.
The first to enter wore an ornate robe of glistensilk accented with rose gold, her mahogany skin stretched tight to the skull. Razor-thin eyebrows cut across a smooth brow. The woman’s hazel eyes made contact with Emelyn’s own, and in that moment she regretted showing such a lack of strength.
It was Aesha, chief Accusator to the Vigilant.
“This is the one I was telling you about,” Aesha was saying to the second newcomer.
The other woman spoke, and Emelyn’s ire dissipated; in its place, a profound mixture of privilege and fear.
Her voice was soft yet commanding, like a loving mother forced to discipline one of her children, and it was with shock that Emelyn realized who she was. Though few in the Vigilant were given the honor of her presence, all knew her deeds and duties: the Aether-born, Banisher of the Ashe and Will of the Nine Divines; Eternal Matron of the Winged Sentinels, and Conductor of the Seventh Vigil.
“Saint Ecclesia.” Emelyn’s mouth was dry. The chains kept her from prostrating; it shamed her. “You know me?”
“I know all my Vigilant: Sentinel Emelyn, Twelfth Anointed of the House Angelikane. Wing of Morika and Vespyna.”
Since first learning to conjure her wings, Emelyn had dreamt of meeting the Saint, spending untold hours in the spire of her adopted mothers’ tower imagining the feats she would accomplish to make it so, and what the Blessed Lady would be like.
No conceptions of her childish daydreaming could have compared to the resplendent figure standing before her. Soft of feature, eternally beautiful, and pure as the Aether itself, the Saint came sealed in terrible battle-plate; war and peace impossibly aligned.
Staring into her eyes left Emelyn both deeply fulfilled and profoundly empty inside.
“Your Vigil took place in Haerth.” It was not a question. St. Ecclesia steepled her long, ringed fingers as she talked. “Accusator Aesha tells me the fires were still raging when they found you in the remains, unscathed. What happened?”
Emelyn tried to sort through the jumbled pieces of memory. As it began to take shape, fear spiked through her veins and she recoiled from the puzzle. “I cannot remember, Blessed Lady.”
“You cannot? Or will not?”
In the reflections of those all-seeing eyes, Emelyn saw her own broken, bloodied visage—familiar yet so removed from the idea of herself that it felt like staring at a stranger.
Guilt speared Emelyn. “I do not know!” she protested. “I only remember pieces, flashes of random memory, cries of terror… I am infected with shame; it festers in my soul. But, I swear on what honor remains mine, I know not what transpired.”
Aesha bristled. “How dare you speak of honor, blasphemer. You, who has sullied the righteousness of the Vigil with your impurity; whose serpent-tongue dares flicker in the presence of the Conductor herself.” Her thin lips twisted. “Perhaps—”
St. Ecclesia held up a hand, and with it came silence.
Emelyn sagged. “My Sisters refuse my gaze, and when I glimpse their eyes there is nothing but revulsion—as if I am something unclean. What have I done to deserve this? What am I guilty of?”
Soft fingers grazed Emelyn’s chin; the Eternal Matron’s caress was both fire and ice, a peculiar sensation that took Emelyn from her pain and dried her tears.
A piercing curiosity burrowed up from the depths of the Saint’s blazing eyes. “What’s the earliest memory you possess?”
“Learning war-craft from my adopted mothers,” Emelyn replied, surprised at the question but grateful for one she could answer.
“What of your true bearers?”
“My…?” The fog in her mind thickened as she struggled to recall those days. There was nothing to see, nothing to draw from—just an empty plain where a forest of memory should have been. Anxiety climbed a short ladder to her heart. Panic lapped at her heels. Surely there was something! She dug deeper.
+I can help you remember.+
Emelyn recoiled. The idonsteel clattered. Another scab flaked off. Aesha and the sister-sentries tensed, the latter advancing to shield St. Ecclesia—but the Eternal Matron seemed unconcerned. She waved for her guards to stand down.
“This is a waste of time, my Saint,” Aesha hissed. “Emelyn is guilty. Furthermore, she is dangerous. It took three of our Sentinels to bring her back here—in chains, no less! Haerth is gone, no accounting for all the innocents lost in those fires. And with the whispers of the Ashen on the rise, we cannot afford distractions such as this.”
St. Ecclesia shot a sidelong glance at the Accusator. “You needn’t remind me of what I already know,” she replied. Cold steel threaded her words.
Aesha was undeterred. “She has broken her Vigil. Even if Haerth’s incineration was not her doing, she was complicit in the act. The rules are clear…”
A violent urge spread through Emelyn, and in that moment she wanted nothing more than to fall upon the hateful Accusator with bloodthirsty intent.
+All you need do is surrender yourself. Their power is an illusion. Sweep it clear as ashes in the wind. Be free to do as you wish!+
Urge became need, and was that fear coloring Aesha’s visage?
Emelyn imagined she could taste it, sweet and succulent like the fat drippings from a roast. It emboldened her. The sister-sentries grew tense, hands gripping tight to their flanged maces. Aesha’s expression tightened.
Emelyn closed her eyes and envisioned the idonsteel shackles melting away as a terrible heat exuded from her, her scarred flesh burning to ash in the purifying fires, blasting apart to make way for the new form beneath, reflected in the eyes of all present: Ivory-white. Pristine. Glorious.
“St. Ecclesia!” The sister-sentries surged forward in unison.
+They are nothing compared to you.+
Emelyn conjured her wings; they erupted from her back with an explosive roar to match the inferno in her soul. With a gust of ashen wind, she swept the guards aside like ants before the storm, their blessed armor marred and blackened. The chamber flickered in a hellish strobe of blood-red flames. She jabbed a finger at the Accusator, and the virulent energy leapt to her command, an extension of her will.
+Take her life!+
St. Ecclesia stepped to the fore of the stricken woman, palm outstretched. Emelyn caught a glimpse of panic hemmed by steel-forged determination.
It all seems so real.
The dream shattered into a resultant wakefulness, punctuated by the shockwave that ripped her from her mooring and bathed the cell in washes of orange and blue.
It struck like a punch from the Asheking himself, lifting Emelyn across the room. Idonsteel, famed for its resilience, crumpled like common tin against her back. Her gut burned. She struggled to breathe, the air made thick with the rancid stench of sulfur and a cloying ashe that clung to her tattered rags and hair.
Through stinging eyes she took in the chamber, scarred black by the horrid force. The shackles and hoist that had held her for weeks was no more, melted and mangled into an unrecognizable twist of metal… metal that should have been indestructible. The sentries were reduced to nothing more than quivering piles of fear, left to rattle in their armor and babble incoherently.
Emelyn squinted through the veil of smoke at St. Ecclesia, brought to a knee. As the air began to clear, Emelyn saw the scarring and burns on the Blessed Lady’s hands and armor. Her chest heaved with each breath. Emelyn glanced at her own hands. Not a mark to be found.
What is this?
Fear slithered up her veins like a frost wyvern and sank its fangs into her heart, poisoning her with the sudden, morbid realization that she was responsible.
“No,” Emelyn moaned. Her side screamed at her as she tried to stand, eclipsed only by the screaming in her mind. “No no no… It was me. Haerth. The villagers. How? How could it be me?”
Beyond the haze, Aesha uncoiled from behind St. Ecclesia and drew up to her full height. From the depths of her elegant robes she pulled a needle-thin saber. Her dark eyes were wide. “By the Nine Divines… She is Ember incarnate. The Herald of Ashe!”
Emelyn tried to scrabble away as the Accusator surged after her, but she was pressed to the wall. There was nowhere left to go, and no strength left to be used.
Aesha sneered. Her eyes burned with holy fire. “In defense of the Sacred Vigil, in the names of our fallen, I, Aesha, servant to the rule of Ecclesia, smite thee, vessel of the Ashen!”
The chamber shook with the thunderous cry of St. Ecclesia, the only thing that could have stopped the fervor driving Aesha’s blade. The Matron rose to her feet, weakened but not without strength. “Stay your hand,” St. Ecclesia commanded. “Look, and see her.”
“I have!” Aesha cried. “A Sister, once—but the thing beneath her flesh has revealed itself! We must end this threat now, before it overtakes us!”
A sword of aether-light formed in St. Ecclesia’s hand, a glorious blue-burning weapon terrible beyond description. “Pierce her with that sword, Aesha, and I will deliver you to the Nine Divines myself.”
The Accusator went rigid with disbelief. “You would protect this corruption? She is perversion! Ash and aether as one! It is our sacred duty to—”
“Do not speak to me of my duty!” St. Ecclesia roared.
Aesha relented. Emelyn should have felt relief, but all that flooded her was terror and confusion. Was Aesha right? Was she corrupted, made a vessel for their sworn enemy? Did the Ember coil inside of her? Could it take command again? The thought dredged her soul and darkened her heart to hope.
Emelyn scrabbled forward on hands and knees, ignorant of the persistent burn in her side; grabbed St. Ecclesia’s metal-capped ankles, and kissed the ground at her feet in a show of utmost subservience.
“O, Blessed Lady, heed your humble servant!” Tears pattered onto the shining boots. “I swear by the Oaths-Vigilant I have forged no willing covenant with the Ashen, lain with no Inferni! I know not what sickness lies within me, but it has shown me the truth: I destroyed Haerth. I have broken my Vigil and taken innocence.” Her voice trembled. “If by some design I harbor the seed of our enemy, then let me seek redemption in the eyes of the Divine: cut me from this coil lest I bring ruination!”
Emelyn closed her eyes. She felt the aether-blade’s heat under her chin. She held back tears; she did not deserve to shed them.
+She would commit you to death for being what you are! Take the blade, pierce the heart of the wretch!+
Emelyn ignored the voice and instead intoned the Ender’s Rites in defiant preparation. Fear gave way to a glorious readiness.
She finished the Rites. Took a deep breath. “Let no shadows fall on the Vigil.”
Emelyn opened her eyes in bewilderment as the sword fell away. Why did the Eternal Matron stay her hand?
“Your sins are not for me to judge,” St. Ecclesia answered, as if reading her thoughts.
Aesha’s jaw dropped. “My Saint. She harbors the Ember! She must be destroyed—”
“Mind your place, child!”
Aesha’s countenance fell. “Eternal Matron. Forgive me.”
St. Ecclesia ignored her. Emelyn trembled as those eyes, beautiful and terrible, fell upon her. The Saint’s visage turned sympathetic.
“I see the death in your eyes; the one you wish for, and the ones you wish to deliver.”
“What am I?” Emelyn pleaded.
“You are foretold,” replied St. Ecclesia.
Terror and uncertainty crashed over her. “I don’t understand.”
Consideration passed across the Saint’s face; a fleeting moment. “You seek redemption?” St. Ecclesia spread her hands. “You shall have it.”
Emelyn froze. “You… you would see me atone? Even after all I’ve done?”
“I would give you the chance,” St. Ecclesia said. She lifted the bewildered Sentinel to her feet.
Emelyn’s heart pounded. Her entire being made as if under siege. To be graced with such generosity!
Emelyn bowed her head, hands clasped abreast. “I am undeserving,” she stammered.
“That remains to be seen,” St. Ecclesia smiled. Then, it was gone, replaced by a sternness demanded of her by duty. She motioned to the still-crumpled sentries. “Sisters! Reclaim yourselves!”
They sprang back to life, embarrassment spilling from beneath their helms.
“Prepare Sentinel Emelyn for Atonement.”
When the guards had followed her commands, and only she and the Accusator remained, St. Ecclesia allowed herself a moment of vulnerability. Weariness fell upon her like a sodden cloak, one she was content to be swaddled in. But, she dared not show such weakness for long, especially in the presence of the young Accusator, so she shouldered the weight and kept her head high.
Aesha spoke up from behind, her voice haggard with caution. “Blessed Lady, if I may?”
St. Ecclesia nodded in consent.
The Accusator cleared her throat. “Emelyn is corrupted by the Ashen. Surely, you can see that as I do?”
“Then why did you not grant her wish? Why do you allow her to live?”
“You are still young, Aesha,” St. Ecclesia replied. “When you have kept the Vigil for as long as I, you learn that not all things are as they seem. And our worlds and our rules are not as rigid as we have been led to believe.”
“Of course, Blessed Lady. I do not mean to question the Will of the Nine…”
“What if she fails the Atonement?”
“Then Emelyn may very well become that which will destroy us, as you fear. Or, perhaps, she will choose to save us.”
St. Ecclesia eyed the poor, confused Accusator. Maybe one day she would understand.
Light and dark, battling for countless aeons. But this… this could be the end of it.
It had been almost a thousand years since she’d orchestrated the Seventh Vigil. A thousand long years battling an ever-present foe. Often, Ecclesia wondered if the Asheking felt the same exhaustion, the same seared-in-the-bones weariness. The Divines had long ago declared that this war would be forever waged, the forces of light and dark destined to keep one another in check. Never to see eye-to-eye. Never to find compromise.
Could she be the one? A child born from the cooperation of mortal enemies. A living example of potential unity between our kinds. A sign of a glorious New Dawn.
One without need of Vigil.
The thought electrified her, brought to life every innumerable ache and pain she’d gathered over the course of her endless existence, and excised them from the dull buzz they’d long faded to; euphoric, to truly feel for the first time in an eternity where feeling was an unaffordable luxury, lest it compromise her ordained Vigilance.
A tiny shiver wriggled down her spine, followed by a nagging worry. What if she’d made the wrong decision? What if Emelyn gave in to the Ember, or worse… embraced it and turned against them willingly? What if the Book was right, and the Unity brought nothing but the Black Earth?
St. Ecclesia did her best to shrug the persisting thoughts off. Whatever happened, she was powerless to stop it now—another feeling, one she hadn’t experienced since the First Vigil.
In a way, it was liberating. She wondered if the Created Men felt the same as she did now while they prospered and suffered in equal measure, yoked unknowingly to the invisible forces waging around them. Perhaps she could ask one of them herself, some day.
Once alone in her quarters, she said her prayers to the Nine, then turned to the balcony at the end of the chambers. With a heavy sigh and a heavier heart, she strode across the gleaming stone floor, where awaited her conduit through which she could view all of Idonia and beyond.
Ecclesia shed her armor and cloak, stripped down to her pure flesh, then stepped inside the waiting sphere and dropped to her knees with hands clasped. The device sealed behind her and soon the Aether began to flow: warm, sliding waters that embraced her tender, aching flesh and connected her to… everything.
Succeed, little wing.
It was the last thought Ecclesia had before the Aether consumed her, and she once more resumed her Vigil.