Palan returned to the area where he killed Ross and Kore. By the time he arrived, the second sun was beginning to rise. The angels’ remains were missing, only a bloodstain and a few flecks of flesh proving that they were even there. He narrowed his eyes at the scene and continued forward, heading towards the impaled heads in the distance. They acted as a demarcation between the forest he was in and a valley that was obscured by vines.
The forest was unusually quiet as Palan passed through it, occasionally stopping near bloodstains. He wasn’t sure if they belonged to angels or wild animals, but he had the feeling that it was the former. As he got closer to the macabre border, he began to see skeletal remains decorating treetops, causing him to raise an eyebrow. The amount of dried blood on the tree trunks meant the owners of the skeletons were still alive when they died up there. Palan frowned as he recalled the bird cry that responded to the wolf-gorilla’s roar; he always had an issue with demons that could fly, though there weren’t many. The gluttonous demon in the town Andrea was infected at was one of them. How long ago had that been?
Palan shook his head and ignored the skeletal remains above his head. He arrived at the edge of the forest, and he could distinguish the features of each impaled head. His gaze roamed over them, searching for a recognizable face, but he didn’t see Owen, Carmella, or Gerome. Then again, he didn’t know what warranted being impaled; for all he knew, they could have died a long time ago. Beyond the line of heads was a series of buildings made of mud with vines growing on and hanging off of their roofs. He saw angels walking outside of the houses and gathering towards the center of the valley. On the roof of the centermost building, a humanoid figure was looking down over the angels with its back towards Palan. The figure was sky-blue with a two pairs of wings on its back and had giant talons for feet.
Palan’s eyes narrowed as his gaze fell upon a particularly bulky figure standing near the crowd of angels. It was the wolf-gorilla demon. He noticed that its left shoulder was bandaged; it seemed like no one was willing to heal it. Palan rubbed his chin as a figure wearing blue armor—most likely Ishim—appeared at the front of the crowd. Palan cupped his hand over his ears and turned his head to the side, but he was too far to make out individual words. A particularly large boulder caught his eye, and a slight smile formed on his lips. Hadn’t Tara told him about a technique that involved a rock?
He walked towards the boulder that was twice his height and three times his wingspan. He touched it and gritted his teeth, focusing his powers on it. Dirt fell off of the bottom of the boulder, and bugs scattered as Palan lifted the rock above his head. He turned around to face the gathering of angels and squinted his eyes. The sky-blue figure’s head suddenly turned one hundred and eighty degrees to stare at him with its body still facing forward. Palan stared back. Two seconds passed, and the figure blinked its red eyes. The expected bird shriek didn’t come.
Sweat formed on Palan’s brow, and he stopped hesitating. If the bird-demon wasn’t going to warn Ishim, then there was no problem. He threw the boulder into the air. Less than a second passed before Palan realized the fundamental issue with his plan. He couldn’t reuse his power on the rock if he wasn’t touching it. The boulder soared into the air and soared and soared. He and the bird-demon stared at it as it flew beyond the valley, eventually disappearing from view. A few of the angels in the crowd noticed the rock flying overhead but didn’t dare to speak as Ishim was talking.
Palan frowned. It had been a while since he did something as stupid as that. He had exhausted nearly three quarters of his mana reserves to lighten that rock. The bird-demon spread its wings and ascended into the air before making a beeline towards Palan. Palan cursed and unsheathed his dagger while inspecting the approaching demon. It had a giant beak on its face and a pair of normal-looking arms. Its chest was covered by a strip of white cloth, seemingly fragile. Three feathers sprouted from the top of its head, their ends reaching the demon’s lower back. Palan positioned himself behind a tree and waited with his left hand inside his leather pouch. The bird-demon landed on a tree a stone throw away from him. It opened its beak. “Hi.” A surprisingly normal voice came out of its mouth. “Nice throw.”
Palan didn’t respond as he and the bird-demon stared at each other.
“I’m Madison. People call me the scatterbrained fool,” the bird-demon said and clacked its beak. “You are?”
“Why didn’t you alert them?” Palan asked.
Madison stroked the feathers on her wings and sighed. “Aren’t my feathers beautiful?” she asked. She sighed again. “Very beautiful, yes you are.” She turned away from her wing and stared at Palan. “What’s that on your face? It looks very hideous.”
Palan frowned and touched his cheek with his hand. There was nothing there. “What?” he asked and furrowed his brow. He couldn’t feel any bloodlust or hostile intentions from Madison at all.
Madison blinked. “Never mind. You’re just ugly,” she said and sighed. “I keep forgetting not everyone can be as perfect as me.” She wrapped her lower pair of wings around her body and shivered. Her upper pair of wings extended outwards towards the sky as she arched her back, sticking her chest out while closing her eyes. She inhaled through the two tiny slits on her beak and exhaled while returning back to her former position.
Palan stared at her. She stared back. Five minutes passed in silence. “You’re not here to fight?” Palan asked.
Madison tilted her head to the side, her temple touching her shoulder. “Solra said to hunt angels,” she said to Palan as if she were speaking to a child. “Are you an angel?”
“Do I look like an angel?”
“All ugly things look the same,” Madison said and chirped. She tilted her head to the side and preened the feathers on her wing. “But you’re purple.”
“And you’re blue.”
“Of course I’m blue,” Madison said. “It is the prettiest color after all.”
Palan sighed. “So why are you here?” he asked. This whole time, he had his dagger raised, waiting for a strike. He lowered his dagger slightly and observed Madison’s face, watching for any signs of an attack. The bird-demon just continued to preen her feathers.
“So why are you here?” Madison asked back.
“To kill that stupid oversized bipedal dog,” Palan said.
“To kill that stupid oversized bipedal dog,” Madison repeated. She crouched down on the branch she was perching on and hugged her scaled shins. Palan’s left hand flashed, and a projectile flew towards Madison. Right before it hit her, it collided against an invisible barrier and flew back towards Palan. Palan frowned and caught the projectile. It was a rock that had been soaking in the stew that poisoned Michael’s army so many days ago.
“Flight and a power that reflects projectiles,” Palan said and furrowed his brow.
“Flight and a power that reflects projectiles,” Madison said and smiled, her beak curving unnaturally. A breeze blew past, causing her wings to flutter. Palan ignored her and turned his head towards the gathering of angels in the valley. It seemed like Ishim had finished his speech, and the army was forming into ranks.
“What are they planning?” Palan asked. He figured it couldn’t hurt to ask.
“What are they planning?”
“You are.” Madison nodded.
Palan sighed. The last time he felt this helpless was when Andrea was two years old. It was time to try a different approach. “Madison.”
“That’s me,” the bird-demon said.
“You’re very smart, right?”
“The smartest,” Madison said. “They don’t call me scatterbrained fool for nothing.”
“Can you tell me what the angels were talking about? I couldn’t seem to understand,” Palan said while gritting his teeth.
“They’re too far away to hear. It’s no wonder why you can’t understand,” Madison said and sighed while shaking her head. “It must be unfortunate to be so simple.” She preened herself. “Not everyone can be as perfect as you Madison, don’t feel bad for him.”
“I give up,” Palan said and sheathed his dagger. He turned around and walked parallel to Ishim’s moving army. Madison alighted to the ground and bounced after him like a bird, maintaining her distance. Palan whirled around and pounced towards her in one motion, but she just flapped her wings and flew up into the air before landing the same distance away as before from Palan. “You’re like a pride demon but not really.”
“You too,” Madison said. “You can use pride, but you’re not very prideful.” She hopped closer to him and tilted her head. “Stand still.” She gazed into his eyes while stroking her feathers, using Palan’s pupils as a mirror. “See? You take orders.” Palan snorted and turned around, walking away.
“Are you mad?” Madison asked as she hopped after him. Palan unsheathed his dagger. A bush rustled in front of the duo and an angel appeared. Her face was streaked with dirt and leaves were stuck in her disheveled hair. She froze when she saw Palan and Madison. Before Palan could even move, Madison had already impaled the female angel with her talon. Palan narrowed his eyes and lunged at the bird-demon, but Madison flew above the treetops and dove towards a tree, impaling the angel with a branch. The angel screamed as her face blanched. Blood trickled down the tree trunk as Madison alighted behind Palan and sighed while ruffling her feathers. She plucked a leaf from a nearby fern and wiped the blood off of her talons. “Such dirty blood.” The angel’s screams slowly became choked and died away.
Palan glanced at Ishim’s army before shaking his head and walking towards the direction of the outpost.
“Where are you going?” Madison asked as she hopped after him. “Stay and admire my beauty for a bit longer. Igor’s too thick-headed to see beauty, and all the angels die too fast to appreciate my splendor.”
Palan ignored her and continued to walk away.