Before Time. Before Space.
The human mind cannot conceive of the Rebellion – the War in Heaven – as it truly happened. There was no terrain for the fighting to take place on, no bodies to fall after a successful attack, no day or night to mark the time or bring the occasional respite.
But there was violence. There was fear. It raged for an eternity, each moment of horror as fresh as the first.
Imagine if you will, an endless, featureless plain shrouded in darkness deeper than any night, lit only by searing gouts of fire – celestial or infernal, there was no difference yet. If you need something more concrete, think of the trenches of the Somme, remember their cramped quarters, the mud, the certainty that if you ever stood up straight again, it would be the last thing you ever did.
Imagine two armies, each vast beyond what any human nation could bring together. Ten million fighting soldiers on a side. Each had the other completely surrounded, yet were entirely surrounded themselves.
Some fought in regimented ranks, armor gleaming in the light of their swords, perfect wings flowing behind like banners. Some fought chaotically, with teeth and claws and whatever weapons they could find, driven as much by their own rage as the shouts of the leaders at their backs.
It should have been easy to tell which side was which. It was not.
The fighting flowed along invisible battlefronts, creating ever-changing fractal patterns in the perpetual chaos of war.
There were no places that were safe, where the fighting never came, but some were quiet for a moment. A brief pause, to plan the next attack before the front line shifted and returned.
In one of these pauses, at the bottom of a trench, Briathos prepared her angels to charge.
“Some of you are tired of fighting. Some of you long to return to peace and certainty.” To call her expression stony would be a misnomer, because stone did not yet exist. But her eyes could have been the inspiration for granite. “But this War will not be won by longing, or wishing, or hoping for something better. It will be won by the strength of our convictions, the edges of our blades, and the blood of our enemies spilled across the ground!”
Two hundred and fifty angels gave a hoarse cheer, swords held before them. You shouldn’t have been able to fit so many angels – with wings and swords and shields – into such a small space. But space was still a malleable concept, in those days before there were days. Still, it was crowded.
Briathos glared at the faces of her cohort, searching for signs of weakness. Weakness would let the Others win. Of her original six hundred, already over a hundred had been lost in the attacks. Almost half were deployed to the shifting fronts. But in her eyes, two hundred and fifty was more than enough to turn the tide of the War. As far as she was concerned, a single angel marked the difference between victory and defeat.
“Soon,” she continued, and silence immediately fell again, “the Forces of the Enemy will be upon us. We will rise up and overwhelm them! Though they send their fires ever against us, we shall rout them with our own!” She held her flaming sword aloft. Because of her small stature, she could do so without fear of exposing her arm to the Enemy. She was one of the few who could walk the trenches unbowed.
“What you do now will be remembered, the stories of your deeds will echo through Eternity!” Another cheer. “Who among you will join me at the head of the charge? Who will be first to go over the top?”
As always, her officers Karael and Lahab stepped forward eagerly. But the rest – this was always where those cravens lost their nerve.
Before she could continue, a commotion broke out at the edge of the trench. A new figure arrived, collapsing more than climbing in from above. He dropped unceremoniously into the mud, and simply sat there as if he never intended to stand again.
He wore no body yet, but let us imagine him as he will be – tall, pale, with short white hair. A uniform instead of a suit, now torn and dirty with the helmet missing. Injured, non-fatally: a burn on the side of his face, a gash on his left arm that bleeds just a little too much.
His expressive face carried the dull, flat look of one who has felt too much pain, and will be feeling it again in his memories for a long time, but just at the moment isn’t feeling much at all.
His sword tumbled from his fingers into the wet mud.
“Aziraphale!” Briathos stormed over to the interloper who dared interrupt her speech, hands planted on her hips, sword neatly sheathed. “What are you doing here? Your squad is stationed at Location 876-431. I know there’s still fighting going on there!”
“We were…overrun…” His eyes stared at nothing in particular.
“Did I order a retreat?” At her whisper, every angel in the trench took a step back. All except Aziraphale, who shook his head slightly, not blinking. “On your feet, soldier!”
He didn’t quite leap up as expected – his legs didn’t seem to want to coordinate – but he stood at something like attention, back and wings instinctively stooped to keep him below the level of the trench.
Briathos, light golden wings spread wide in the gloom, tilted her chin to glare at him from the height of his chest. “Now. Let’s try this again. Where’s the rest of your squad? There should be eight of you left.”
Her voice took on a dangerous edge. “What do you mean, ‘gone’?”
“Dead. Destroyed.” Aziraphale watched the blood mix with mud at his feet. “Just me now.”
Briathos grabbed the remains of his uniform and pulled him down to look her in the eye. “Listen, Principality . Are you telling me a key Location has just been lost to the Enemy? Seven angels are dead? And you just took a stroll through No-Man’s Land all by yourself? This. Does. Not. Look. Good. Do you understand me?” She watched comprehension – and fear – blossom in his eyes. “So. One more time. What. Happened?”
Aziraphale swallowed, and recited mechanically, “There were over a hundred of the Enemy. There was no sign of them on approach, they simply overwhelmed us. I called for the retreat. I hoped that from a better position, we could regroup and retake 876-431.”
“And were your squad mates still alive when you ran?”
“I didn’t run. All seven evacuated ahead of me, even Omael, who was injured. Vretiel helped me get her out. I was the last one in the trench, holding the barricade to buy them time. Then the fire just…fell from above.” He trembled as he spoke.
“TRAITOR!” Briathos slammed him back against the trench wall, one hand on his throat, pushing him upwards. With his eyes above ground level, he could see the formless shadows locked in eternal combat on every side, occasionally lit by almost liquid drops of fire from above. “You sent them out there to be killed! I should hold you here until that fire takes your head off.”
“If they’d stayed in the trench, they’d have died!”
Briathos drove the butt of her sword into his stomach, then pushed him upright again. “Don’t argue with me, Principality , I’m an angel of the Second Sphere. You ordered your team out of the trench. They died. You stayed in the trench and survived. What exactly am I supposed to think?”
“It was just bad luck! Please!” A ball of fire streaked past and crashed close to the trench. Close enough to feel the heat. “There was nothing else I could do!”
“You could have followed your orders. Stay in that Location and hold it at all cost .”
“But there was no way to win,” he pleaded.
“At. All. Cost, Aziraphale.” She pushed him all the way up on his toes, entire head exposed across the plain above. “You should have held that position with your life and your soul and died fighting alongside the rest. As any angel would. You’re either a traitor or a coward. Which is it?”
Another fire passed, near enough to scorch his already burned face. “Please! I didn’t – It wasn’t – ”
“Traitor or Coward?”
He squeezed his eyes shut. “C-coward,” he whispered.
“I can’t hear you,” she sang, not at all sweetly.
“Coward! I’m a coward!”
“And my friends are dead because of me!”
She let go, and he collapsed back into the mud, shaking with a grief that was beyond tears.
Reaching down, Briathos curled her fingers under his chin, lifting his gaze to meet hers again. “It’s good that you admitted it,” she said as kindly as she could manage, which wasn’t very. “And if you say it until we both believe it, maybe you can be Forgiven.”
Aziraphale tried to swallow, but it turned into a sob. “I’m a Coward. And if I followed orders, my friends might still be alive.”
“Hmm. Not yet. But keep trying, you might get there.” She turned back to the crowd of angels who watched impassively. Most of them had been berated by her at some point. None wanted to repeat the experience. “Good news, everyone. Looks like we have a volunteer to lead the charge.”
Karael and Lahab hauled Aziraphale to his feet again. “Y-you can’t,” he protested weakly. “I’m injured.”
Briathos considered his left arm, now coated with blood, then glanced at his other side. “Your sword arm looks fine, Coward. Isn’t that all you need?” She lifted his sword out of the mud and held it out, point down.
Aziraphale’s right hand trembled as he grasped the hilt.
“And,” she added in a low voice that every angel in the crowd could hear, “if you kill seven of the Enemy for every soldier you let die, I might just consider letting you back into this trench.” She smiled, which was worse than a scowl. “There’s no room for cowards in my army.”
As her officers hauled him away, she took one last look at the assembled host. Everywhere her eyes fell, they found perfect uniforms, well-groomed wings, gleaming armor. Briathos’s cohort was the best, most well-disciplined and obedient unit in all the Celestial Legions.
She drew her sword and marched to the front. “With this charge, we turn the tide of the War. For the Glory of Heaven!”
“For the Glory of Heaven!” every angel chorused back. None would dare not to.
All around them, the war raged. It had lasted an eternity. It was only half done.