Angels were busy putting out the tent fires, using some unsalvageable ones to kindle a few bonfires. The army had chosen to leave the camp completely dark for the night so the halfings didn’t have a brightly lit target to shoot at with their cannons. Raea rushed through the camp, healing the angels and halflings that were struck by lightning or burned by fire along the way. She wanted to make sure Elrith was alright. Her stomach churned every time she passed over a dead harpy or their limbs which were scattered on the ground, leaving behind bloody puddles.
Raea found Elrith looking for her near the empty spot Cleo left behind after storing the tent. “Raea!” Elrith said and hugged her, squishing Cleo who was held in Raea’s arms. “Thank the Creator. I thought something happened to you. When I saw your tent missing….”
Raea pat Elrith’s back. “Thank goodness you’re safe,” she said and pulled away. “But what was that? How do the harpies have orbs?”
“I think I know.” Michael stood behind them with his expression dark. “Solra got his hands on Pyre. That’s the only explanation for this. All the orbs are carefully regulated and accounted for. There’s no way we lost this many to the halflings over the years.”
“That blindfolded old man can craft orbs?” Elrith asked and furrowed his brow. “Aren’t they extremely hard to make? Where could they have gotten the materials for this? You saw the number of harpies yourself. Every single one of them had an orb.”
“I don’t have to understand everything to know I’m right,” Michael said. “Pyre is a Khondra; of course he’d know how to make the orbs. Solra’s army suddenly has access to large numbers of orbs. They would have ambushed my army when I first got here if they had them earlier. I can’t even imagine what kind of torture Solra is putting him through. Pyre is an angel of self-sacrifice—he’d die before helping our enemies.”
“Are you a moron?” Elrith asked. “Why would you ever bring someone with as much knowledge as Pyre to a battlefield? Did you even consider the consequences of what would happen if he was caught?”
“No,” Michael said and crossed his arms. “I didn’t know Solra would be here. I accept all responsibility for what has happened and what is to come.”
Elrith snorted before looking away. “How many people did we lose?” he asked with a slight tremor. The fire in his voice died down.
Michael’s expression softened when he recalled the talk he had with the young general. “We lost the angels on the watchtower,” he said. “And there were a few slaves who were sleeping outside without the tents.” He sighed. “The biggest loss is to our morale. We were forced to retreat due to unknown weapons, and now our army can’t even sleep properly. Adding on the fact that our own powers were used against us … I think we should retreat. Pull all the way back to the checkpoint and wait for orders from the capital. I had one of my men send a messenger pigeon informing the council about the orbs.”
“I’ll trust your judgment,” Elrith said, completely ignoring the fact he called the older general a moron a few seconds ago. “I’ve never been on the losing side of an encounter before. So this is what it feels like, huh?”
Michael nodded. “Like your virtues and sins,” he said and placed his hand on Elrith’s shoulder, “you have to know what it feels like to lose to truly know what it means to win.” Elrith nodded at Michael and straightened his back. Raea and Cleo looked at each other.
Cleo frowned and pulled a Palan-teeth necklace out of her bag. She handed it to Raea. “Here,” she said.
“What’s this?” Raea asked and raised an eyebrow. She reached out to grab the necklace by the thread holding it together.
“Nothing,” Cleo said and quickly put the necklace away before Raea could take it. She shuddered, causing her scales to ripple. “Ugh. Stealing feels so much better than giving.” She nodded to herself, taking Michael’s words to heart.
Raea made a strange expression as she looked at the orange lizardman in her arms. She sighed and raised her head. “Um. Are we retreating right now?” Raea asked. “Like, right now right now?”
“Why?” Michael asked, turning his head to look at Raea.
“Err, Palan’s not back yet…,” Raea said and pursed her lips. Her eyes shifted towards Elrith, asking for help.
“What do you mean not back?” Elrith asked. He tried to look intimidating, but he couldn’t bring himself to face his sister that way. Instead, he looked constipated.
“He, uh, went out for a bit,” Raea said. Her voice lowered to a whisper. “Like two days.” She lowered her head and peeked at Elrith through the hair that fell over her face.
“He said he’d be going away for two days?” Elrith asked.
“No,” Raea said and shook her head. “He’s been gone for two days, and I have no idea when he’ll be back.” She pursed her lips and stared at the floor.
“Ray,” Elrith said and exhaled. “I don’t even know what to say to that. I—“
“Then I’ll say it,” Michael said, his voice hard. “What were you thinking when you let him get away? I knew he was problematic the second I laid my eyes on him. That’s why I struck him down to teach him his place. But you … do you even understand the consequences of him roaming free? He’ll be attacked on sight. If he dies, what happens to you? You have a reputation as a Caelum to maintain. Do you think the capital would approve of someone who can’t even control a contracted demon? What if he attacks someone? What if he kills someone? Can you shoulder that responsibility? If he killed a child—“
“He wouldn’t!” Raea shouted. There were tears in her eyes. “Palan’s not a good person; I know that! He’s an asshole, and he’s a bully. He can be a bit mean at times, but that’s just his defense mechanism. Yes, sometimes I feel he’s insecure about himself and takes it out on me, but he would never hurt a child. Never.” She lifted the stunned Cleo into the air. “He saved a lizardman child from an abusive situation. I’ve never heard of an angel ever helping a halfling before.” Raea’s cheeks were flush and wet with her tears.
“Then forget the child part,” Michael said and snorted. “My other words are still valid. As his owner, his reputation is also yours. His actions are yours. His words are yours. Can you honestly tell me you’re able to accept all responsibility for him? All angels are screened and have to go through vigorous testing to form a contract with a demon. You may have skipped that step, but that doesn’t excuse you from his actions.”
Raea lowered Cleo and stuck her chest out. “No matter what he does, I will take responsibility for him. I made him a promise.”
“Ray…,” Elrith said. There was a stinging feeling in his eyes. He felt like his baby sister had finally grown up.
“Very well,” Michael said and nodded, his voice returning to normal. “As long as you realize the weight of your contract. We retreat at dawn. I hope your demon returns by then.”