The white mist rolled in over the flat plains of Neol, the training grounds of the Nephilius tournament. Delane could feel the cold coating her skin, but her body remained an even temperature. She endured in her statue-like pose, wings tucked in at her sides, breathing smooth and both hearts pumping at a steady rate.
She was facing two different flocks at the moment and needed to keep her wits sharp. There were five flocks on Nephilius: black, red, white, green, and blue. And they all fell under the banner of Angelica. Each flock was separate and distinct in their abilities, and the color of their wings dictated where each belonged.
Red flashed as someone soared in from the side. Delane dropped to the ground and the shadow passed over her head. She moved and in an instant her black wings spread out and she used their serrated edges to tear through her opponent. Flickers of dark maroon blood were a dramatic contrast to their cloud surroundings. Delane’s pitch-black hair, which was shoulder length, flew around in an arc as she moved back into fight position.
“Lane! You just tore the hell out of me.”
She heard the exasperated voice of Jesile, her training partner from the red flock. It was unusual for a black-wing like Delane to be close with any of the others. But the two females had been friends a long time.
The black flock were the more elite fighters and they were respected but not really liked; mainly because they governed the five flocks of the Angelica race. Reds were in general underhanded and manipulative, but Delane had found Jesile to be trustworthy.
Delane’s eyes shone as she observed her surroundings. The iris of each eye – which was black and blended into her pupil – reflected back the scene. She smiled at Jesile when she limped into view. Her friend had a large gash down one of her wing planes, but it was already starting to heal.
The females moved back to back, their wings standing many feet above their heads. Two males from the white flock were circling them, biding their time and using the mists to blend in. The white controlled the cool mists and could use it for very advantageous camouflage. Each of the five flocks had unique skills.
Delane switched her eyesight across to intense vision, and she was able to make out the shadows of the other Angelicas within the mist.
“Down and second quadrant to the right.” She barked the order at Jesile.
Simultaneously they hit the ground, rolled two spaces across to the right and emerged on either side of the whites, who had been creeping closer, hoping for a surprise attack.
Delane and Jesile formed a high dome with their wings and, spinning rapidly in a circle, they cut into their opponents, taking their legs out from under them. The serrated wings were enough to injure an Angelica but not seriously, so they relied on the strength in their winged muscles to pummel the whites into the ground, tiring them out for a future attack.
The skirmish lasted for many minutes until the loud horn sounded, followed by the chime of the harps.
Training was over and it was time to return to their zones.
“Farewell, Lane.” Jesile gave an incline of her head, before turning away. “See you in the morn.”
Delane saluted before tucking her massive wings against her body and moving toward the black zone.
The black-winged Angelica fell under the name Gaa. Their ruling council were situated in the center of a cloud field. From there they discussed events, tactics and the tournament which was to start in a short while.
Delane was young to be a council member. She had earned her place through her many accolades, including being champion of the tournament. So now when she wasn’t fighting she helped with the meetings.
Upon entering the council room, a mist-walled dwelling, Delane sheathed her weapons and left her armor at the entrance.
“We have big news, Delane.” Her mentor, Galern, with his charcoal-colored skin and masses of white hair, rushed forward to grasp her hands. “We have an outsider competing in the tournament for the first time in a millennium,” Galern continued, tendrils of his hair flying forward as he gestured with large mannerisms.
Delane paused, before turning to the other ten council members.
“How is this possible? Do we even allow outsiders in? Where do they stay? They have no flock or territory.”
The oldest of all black-winged Angelica was Steva, a wizened woman with more opinions than any other Delane had met.
“Of course we let in those who are not from Nephilius. How can we call ourselves a race of warriors if we are not truly tested? They assure us that they do not need to stay here for rest. They will just come for the battles.”
“Did they only meet with our council?” Delane’s voice dropped. She leaned her upper body forward. “And where was I?”
“You were training, Lane,” Galern said. “And we called in representatives from all five flocks.”
Delane’s features hardened. She was not only the youngest black-winged council member, but she was also the only one to still battle in the tournament. Which meant on occasion she missed the meetings.
There didn’t seem to be any point arguing and, if she was honest, Delane was interested in testing her skills against others. The tournament started in fourteen eclipses of the sun-cloud, the ball of energy which shifted across their sky, and she couldn’t wait. It was her favorite time of schedule on Nephilius. Closely followed by the energy blast and the battle of the demons.
The energy blast: when members of all five flocks sent out their collective magicks to form the next generation. Their young grew on the Isle of Birth, emerging from the garden wingless and vulnerable. Two representatives from each of the flocks tended the young for the first few months, until their wings developed and their flock membership was revealed.
And the battle of the demons: the first true test of strength on Nephilius. Upon maturity an Angelica would venture to Stormhaven to battle the shadowy demon spawn, monsters from mythical time that the Angelica engaged in long, bloody sagas.
There were ten different lands – cloud masses – on Nephilius. Stormhaven was one; the Isle of Birth another; five that were the flocks’ territories; Neol, the tournament grounds; one was empty, its clouds too fragile to support life; and the last was – “The Isle of Souls.”
Delane focused back on the room when Galern mentioned the souls. The Angelica had been trying for a long time to lift the curse that plagued their race. They were long lived but not immortal and, upon final death, their souls were supposed to be released back to the mother. But for the last thousand cycles of the sun-cloud, the dead had been trapped on the Isle of Souls. And they couldn’t figure out how to free them.
“The Walker promised they would look at our souls and see if there was a way to lift the curse,” Galern continued. “It’s as good a chance as we’ve ever had. His power was strong and he disappeared into a swirling portal. Things beyond our knowledge.”
Delane again held back words of protest. The situation with the souls was fast becoming desperate. The balance on Nephilius had been thrown out, because the dead should be leaving to be reborn, not trapped on the isle. And in any situation in nature where the balance was skewed, sooner or later something happened to right the natural cycle.
“Remind me again what you believe will happen if we don’t free the souls?” Delane asked her council members.
“The trapped dead will draw the energy of everyone on Nephilius and all of us will walk in the shadow world with them,” Steva answered without hesitation.
Delane was still having trouble trusting this. The elder woman was prone to dramatics, but she was also very wise. So it was hard to know.
“How much time do we have?” Galern asked, his brow furrowed. He was much more inclined to believe Steva’s word.
“I already feel the draw,” she said, her eyes lifting skyward. “Don’t you find your energy scattering more frequently? We have less young emerging, and are weaker in battle. These are the signs from the four prophets of the end of days.”
The Angelica were trained soldiers, and one thing they did was obey order. Written at the dawn of their race was the book-of-life. It was filled with rules and prophesy. Most of them were obscure and open to interpretation. Often, Delane interpreted their meaning differently to the rest of her race, and that wasn’t her only abhorration.
She was stronger, faster, and her wings more lethal than those of her brethren. She knew that she was an anomaly on Nephilius: she was the only Angelica born of flesh – her mother had somehow grown and birthed her many years before, and the red council members had reacted to her birth by killing her mother soon after.
War had almost erupted then, and Delane still wished it had; she held a grudge against the others for their murderous behavior.
It was lucky she was still a babe when they came for her mother. As a fully grown Angelica, no one wanted to test Delane, especially if she lost her cool and released the molten lava of energy inside her. Energy that controlled the very air that flowed through the cloud lands. Delane often used the air as an aid in battle. She could see minute details through the vision of air particles. She could use the air to knock objects away or bring them toward her. She could steal the breath from an Angelica, but not sufficiently to kill them; there was too much air available.
“I want to see the Isle of Souls.” Her voice rang out across the space.
“Why?” Galern asked. “What do you hope to achieve?”
“I want to use my senses. It’s one thing to be told something and another to experience it for yourself.” Delane wondered if her advanced senses would clue her into something that others had missed.
“Take her, Galern.” Steva waved her hands, already turning away to consult her charts and pages of prophesy.
Delane’s mentor studied her for a moment before nodding once. “Okay, let us leave now so we can return and still have plenty of time for your training before the tournament begins.”
No more words were spoken. Galern simply donned his armor, as did Delane, and they left the mist-dwelling. And then with a burst of energy her mentor’s powerful wings extended to the side, and with a few hard thrusts he moved up into the mists, Delane following closely.
They flew for many hours. The higher they were from the cloud lands, they clearer the air was. They crossed over half of the ten lands of Nephilius. Each of the five flock zones was similar to the one before. The only thing that differentiated them was the assortment of mist buildings and the colors woven into the outer areas, colors which matched their wings. The Isle of Birth was quiet, most of the last group of young had grown their wings and were with their flocks now.
When they reached the junction of the ten lands, Galern turned to the left and they were over the Isle of Souls. Delane never fatigued, but she knew the other Angelica would be tiring. They would have to land.
She heard the screams long before she saw them.
The souls were no more than colored mists floating around the cloud mass, somehow contained, unable to move on to rebirth. Galern descended and she followed. The souls wrapped around them, but couldn’t do anything to physically interact.
Delane’s two hearts started to pump harder. There was so much sorrow here that her body was reacting. Usually she kept a tight control on her emotions and physical functions, but it was going to be increasingly difficult the longer they stayed on the isle.
“How large is this land? How many souls do we estimate are here?” Delane’s voice was low, tremors of her emotions lacing the words.
Galern looked at her with some concern, never having seen her react in that manner before. “This is the largest of the ten lands. We believe that’s why the entity that cursed us chose here.” A black shadow darted between them. “In that time there’s been a few hundred deaths amongst the Angelica flocks. And a few beast deaths from Stormhaven.”
The beasts were distinct amongst the souls. They were the black and red mists.
“It’s strange that the beasts are also trapped here. I didn’t even know they had soul energy.” Delane shook her head, her short black hair flying around her face.
The Isle of Souls would be massive if it was the largest of the ten. The black flock only numbered in the thousands, and they lived on a land area of millions of miles. They used all of the space for training and flying.
“Everything has soul energy, some is small, others larger, but one must never underestimate the importance of even the smallest creature. The great circle is vital.”
Delane often received these speeches. She was young for an Angelica, only fifty years, and the elders lived to impart their wisdom.
Ignoring Galern for the moment, she closed her eyes and expanded her energy from her body. The rush of air energy fled from her like the tides of a body of water, and as she started to expand she hit the barrier encasing the Isle of Souls. Each of the ten lands was separated by an abyss. Vast and endless pits that fell to somewhere at the center of Nephilius, and this was where the cage holding the souls was coming from.
“There’s a barrier,” she said out loud. “It’s formed from dark and light energy, but it’s not from an Angelica.”
“How can you tell?”
Her eyes flew open at the gruff nature of Galern’s voice. “Because the five flocks each have a distinct energy pattern, and it’s slightly altered for each individual. But I can always tell what flock an Angelica is from, even before I see the wing color.” And she always knew which flock the young would end up belonging to, even before they grew their wings.
“Have you ever felt energy like this before?” Galern brought his arms and wings closer into his body as some black souls swirled closer.
“It’s similar to the energy of the shadow beasts on Stormhaven. Could it be connected?”
Galern pushed back the free strands of his wild, white hair. “Our last lot of Gaa – black wings – that came back from their battles said that the landscape was much more dangerous than they’d been led to believe. Do you think things may have changed there also?”
Delane worried at her lip. She hadn’t been to Stormhaven for a long time. “It very well could be different. The only ones to go there are the newly matured Angelica, and they have nothing to compare it to. We must go at once.”
“You don’t sense a way for us to break this barrier?” Galern asked as they spread their wings in preparation for flight.
“The energy sustaining it comes from deep within the abysses between our lands. I’ve never found any Angelica who could tell me what exists down there. Do you know?”
Galern shook his head. “Any that have ventured or fallen between have never been heard from again. We’re taught to accept the endlessness that exists and never step foot into the abyss.”
Delane sighed. Typical of the Angelica: they just took everything on faith, caring more for who could swing a sword the fastest, or best another in battle. Anything else was unimportant to them.
Their wings sent out swirls of misty air as they pumped and took flight again. Galern had recharged the energy expended during the last journey and would have no trouble making the distance to Stormhaven.
Angelica became rejuvenated by planting their bare feet onto the cloud masses. Energy would trickle into their bodies to sustain them. This was why, despite the armor they wore, they never covered the soles of their feet. This method still worked for Delane, but she just tired out less frequently than the average fifty-year-old on Nephilius.
Stormhaven was the only land mass to have black rather than white clouds. The beasts had been there for as long as Delane could remember, but there were some living Angelica who recalled the day the whole world turned black.
It was never dark on Nephilius, but for one seemingly endless moment a shadow had descended over the lands, and then Stormhaven was born. Before that moment none other than Angelica had existed on Nephilius, but now there were the beasts: large fire-breathing, shadow-dwelling creatures. They were able to transform between both physical and mist. They could not be hurt when they were in their translucent form, but in their physical form they could be killed. Though it was damn hard. Delane had killed three when she’d come to maturity, and that was a record. Only a very few Angelica had even managed to harm one. Going to Stormhaven was more about bravery and survival.
The white swirling mists slowly changed to gray and then black tendrils as they neared the junction that would take them across to Stormhaven. Delane’s advanced hearing picked up the screeching howls; she had her weapons unsheathed and in her hands before they landed.
The air was clear even on the ground here, and littering the land were large, unnaturally formed cloud structures. The shadow beasts used these to their advantage, lying in wait for the unsuspecting Angelica.
“You must hurry, Delane. We cannot linger here for long.” Galern also held his weapons, a set of spiked-ended clubs. He was swinging them around in random arcs, keeping his reflexes honed for a sudden attack.
“Yes, the same energy is here now too. Stronger than it ever was.” Delane started to run, her strides long and strong.
She could move across the land fast enough to be a blur to the casual observer. Galern took to the air above her. Delane was following the pull and again it led her to one of the cloud edges, the abyss falling away below.
Peering down, Delane could see nothing, just the black clouds fading out to the white mists, which was all that was visible in the gaps between the ten lands. The abysses separating the lands were large, about a mile across, and as far as anyone knew, endless miles down. Delane would be liar if she said she’d never thought of flying down there. But something held her back.
A soft thud indicated that Galern was beside her again.
“It’s from the abyss again,” she huffed. “If these foreigners do not solve our problem, I might have to go down there.”
“Lane!” he gasped. “That’s suicide.”
“It could mean death to our entire world if we don’t free the souls. What choice do I have?”
A noise had them both spinning around.
Coming at them from all sides were shadow beasts. They shimmered in shades of black, gray and white. Some of them were small, others huge, and there were at least ten in total. That in itself was unusual; Delane had never noticed them to hunt in packs.
“Want to try our luck?” She grinned at Galern, who shook his head as they both took to the air, expertly sheathing their unused weapons in the first few flaps.
Luckily no shadow beast could fly. The prowling, snarling creatures let out shrieks as their prey moved out of reach. Blasts of heat followed them as fire spewed from the larger ones, but the Angelica were too fast in the air.
They powered along in silence, Delane wracking her brain to figure out what could be causing the probem on the Isle of Souls and most probably the existence of the shadow beasts. It was the same energy, and it was not natural.
They arrived back on the tournament lands just in time for long-sword training. Delane left Galern at the mist-dwelling. He would let the black leaders know about their findings. She strode across to the center of the field. With her energy she manifested a broad sword from the mists. It took a few moments for it to solidify and turn a steel gray.
“Ready to fight?” Jesile stood with a few of the red flock, her half-grin shooting toward Delane, her spiky orange hair standing up around her delicate features.
Delane swung her sword a few times. “I was born ready. Let’s rumble.”
She pushed thoughts of the Isle of Souls, Stormhaven and the mysterious Walkers from her mind. It was time to battle. She let a grin cross her face as the other flocks stepped up. This was going to be an all-in brawl. The five colors were preparing for the tournament and they weren’t going to be taking it easy on anyone.
This was going to be painful, for everyone but Delane.