Gabriel staggered into the alley. Blood dripped from wounds on his shoulder, torso, neck, and legs. He tried to take deep breaths as he leaned up against a brick wall, but a sharp pain stabbed into his side every time he drew breath. He knew he’d broken some ribs, but that was just the cherry on top of the sundae that was his fight with Beelzebub, then Lucifer, and then the leviathan that had showed up out of nowhere. The last one was the one who’d done in his ribs. After knocking Michael clear across the city with that wrecking ball of a tail, it had got in one good hit while Gabriel tried to flee.
The ground shook beneath his feet as the Archangel thought about the giant creature. It was still looking for him, but Gabriel had shrunk down to his human size to avoid detection and slip into the city. He’d become a needle in an urban haystack. The creature’s frustrated roar was proof of that.
<Keep moving.> Gabriel told himself as he pushed against the wall and grit his teeth.
Divine ichor stained the wall as he moved away and limped deeper into the alley. Gabriel was healing, but slowly. His supply of æther was severely depleted from the battle, and it was replenishing at barely better than a trickle. It was the first time this had ever happened, and it took a moment of thought to figure out why.
The simple answer was ætherial mechanics. The Divine and Infernals had been fighting for control of Eden for millennia, and for the most part, the Divine were successful. Even in the places the Infernals had taken control, the Divine were still able to syphon æther because their blueprint of existence was the same. Most of the Infernals were former Divine angels after all. There were a few non-Divine Infernals, but Gabriel had never had prolonged interaction with their minions, or been injured to this point in captured territory.
What he was dealing with now was something not seen on Eden since the war of conquest. Gabriel felt the shift as Michael abandoned the field of battle, while he was dodging the leviathan and shrinking down to a size he could hide at. The feel of the æther had snapped away from him. What was usually comforting and close by now felt like it was cold and far away. He could only reach and pull in a trickle of it. With his battery essentially drained, and nothing new coming in, that put him in real danger.
The sound of feet slapping against concrete drew Gabriel’s attention to the mouth of the alley he’d just enter. He wasn’t insubstantial, because that took energy to maintain, and he quickly wished he was. A beautiful woman with high cheekbones, a raised chin that failed to hide a major superiority complex, and a spear on her back stared back at him.
Gabriel looked at her, she looked at him, she smiled, pulled a pistol from beneath her jacket, and opened fire. Gabriel was already diving for cover, but she was a quick draw. Bullets streaked towards him as he put a dumpster between him and her.
Even in his injured state, human bullets shouldn’t have been able to harm him, but these were bullets crafted by the Amazons. They were tipped with Divine Steel stolen from dead angels during the war of conquest. Thankfully, all but one missed him due to his quick action. But the one that did hit him ripped a big hole through his already bloodied wing.
Gabriel grimaced in pain as he tried to make himself smaller behind the metal barrier that smelled like week-old Chinese food. The Amazon hunting him didn’t waste ammunition. She stopped firing once Gabriel had taken cover, but he knew she was calling for backup. If they were able to take down an archangel right at the start of their rebellion then that was a loss God couldn’t easily come back from.
<Survive, Escape, Evade, and get rescued.> That was the plan. He knew his brother wouldn’t just leave him.
Gabriel trained his senses on the alley. He unleashed his gift for pattern recognition and spatial awareness bestowed by his father on the situation. He saw the Amazon’s possible avenues of approach laid out before her. Based on the ripples through the æther, the sounds bouncing off the walls, and the scents in the air he was able to pinpoint her location.
He angled himself against the dumpster, took a deep breath, summoned his waning strength, and pushed. The dumpster launched toward the Amazon like it had been fired from a slingshot. Gabriel might be injured, but he was still an archangel of God, and archangels were no slouches.
All he heard was a muffled curse, and the resounding crash of metal striking flesh, but that was enough. Gabriel went insubstantial and slid through the concrete beneath his feet. He fell down until wooziness hit him like a ton of bricks and he became substantial again. His feet hit something solid and it was immediately clear he was in the sewer surrounded by garbage and scurrying rodents.
<I can’t fall any lower without being dead.> Gabriel acknowledged he’d hit rock bottom, accepted it, and started to move. He needed to put as much space between him and his last known location as possible. A small army of angry Amazons would be converging on the area to hunt him down, and the last thing he wanted to do was get caught. He’d be presented to Hippolyta on a silver platter, and that was an experience he was unlikely to survive in his current state.
<They call her the eater of men for a reason.> He shuddered, ignored the squishy substance he stepped in, and kept moving.
The mission was simple: rescue an archangel of God from a horde of angry Amazons. Ava had received Michael’s intent. He wanted this done quickly and quietly. She was to get in, find Gabriel, and get out. The Divine Host wasn’t prepared to fight a prolonged battle with the Amazons yet. Not when they had a leviathan currently sun bathing across most of Central Park.
Of course, this was all way easier said than done. Like every other angel in the area, Ava had felt the ætherial shift on the island of Manhattan. She doubted she’d be able to pull in a handful’s worth of æther if she got into trouble. This mission had to be stealth, and it had to be done with the resources at hand.
This had her, and more than a few others, confused and frustrated. The Divine Host, the ever-victorious army of God, was not used to having logistical issues. Even during the war for Eden, God had been able to secure ætherial supply lines for his forces. It would be ideal if something like that was in the works, but when she asked, Michael shook his head.
<Warding.> It was a simple explanation, but it had profound consequences.
First, it showed the limitations of God when he wasn’t in the same realm as the æther. Despite all of the tweaking over the last millennia, Eden and Heaven were still different creations at their core. God had patched stuff, written new ætherial code here and there to get things more toward how he liked them, but that wasn’t the same as having created the hardware in his own image. Plus, anyone with enough power and skill could do warding.
That being said, warding to keep God’s fingers out of the ætherial pie in Manhattan had to be extremely powerful. Ava guessed the Amazons had been channeling æther into a complex series of wards stationed through the island for the last century. A little here and a little there to avoid drawing any attention, but after a long time that amount added up. It also showed that the Amazons had been planning this revolt for a long time. They were just waiting for the right moment.
Ava knew the Host’s first mission when they fought to retake the island was to locate and destroy those wards. When she’d briefed her team about their extraction mission, she added a secondary objective of locating those wards to hasten the coming battle. She wasn’t going to go out of her way to find them, but they’d be scouring the landscape to find Gabriel, and if they came across warding then they were going to take advantage of their luck.
<Speaking of my team.> Ava looked out at the two people she was bringing with her.
Bart and Razael sharpened their blades and tried not to look nervous. As a dominion and cherubim, they were both two powerful creatures of æther, but they’d also just spend some quality time on the other side of the river. They knew they were heading back into a war zone, and no one, angel or human, liked to throw themselves back in harm’s way like that.
Ava had wanted more guardians to accompany them. Even as few as a squad would have been preferable, but that suggestion got shot down. There were more than a hundred Amazons roaming the island, and with God’s influence gone, they might already be reproducing to increase their numbers. Their numbers were already what made them a threat, and it was going to be like playing whack-a-mole to reinforce their population control after this was over.
All of that was in the future. Ava needed to focus on the present. She needed to get in, get Gabriel, and get out. Losing was not an option.
“You ready?” Ava asked her two partners.
They simply nodded, and the three angels went insubstantial. They weren’t on the banks of the river so the enemy could see them and estimate their avenue of approach. They were a block away and behind cover. They also weren’t taking a straight-line approach to the city. They knew the defenders would be setting up more warding, obstacles, and patrolling for signs of a counterattack. Because, rightly so, they knew the Divine weren’t going to give up millions of innocent souls.
Ava and her team planned to take a circuitous route. The Amazon’s headquarters was relatively centrally located around Central Park, but Ava had ingressed and egressed with her troops in Lower Manhattan, so she was not going to follow the same path. The enemy could be expecting that, or they could not. They could try to play mind games with each other and tactically react to that, but when you started making double and triple contradictions you just ended up with a mess. So, instead of approaching from the East River side of the Island, Ava and company were approaching from the Hudson River side right around the Lincoln Tunnel area. It didn’t put them right at the doorstep of the leviathan and Amazon HQ, but it put them close enough to get a sense of things before progressing.
Ingress was difficult because they wanted to leave as little of an ætherial footprint as possible. Ava knew they Amazons were going to be watching, and being insubstantial only went so far. Flying was out, so they opted for the opposite approach. Like the American Navy’s SEALs, Ava and her small team descended below the surface of the murky Hudson River, and using their wings, propelled themselves forward. They stuck to the deep water, to avoid any detection, and only surfaced when they reached land.
To anyone watching their emergence, it would be eerie. Water didn’t drip off the angels when they were insubstantial. They just seemed to rise from the depths in full armor, alert, and ready for battle. They didn’t find anyone waiting for them. All they saw was a small pier, complete with trees and benches, and behind it a city burned.
Ava motioned for the team to spread out across the pier and proceed toward the row of tall buildings across Twelfth Avenue. She didn’t talk out loud or use the unique frequency angels used to communicate. She relied on hand and arm signals to get her team moving. Anything more had the potential to alert the enemy to their presence. When they were so far behind enemy lines, with no backup, something so simple could be deadly. Ava hadn’t fought Amazons before, and she would like to keep it that way until she wasn’t outnumbered.
The three angels proceeded to the end of the pier and halted before the open street. There were a number of abandoned cars, but no people in sight. Ava scanned in every direction to ensure no one was watching before waving Bart to move. Two would pull security in either direction while one crossed. Bart started off at a good sprint, made it halfway across, and then fell. Since angels didn’t just trip and fall, Ava knew something was wrong.
<Go!> She motioned for Razael to move, and she followed right behind him.
She quickly made it to the point where Bart had gone down, and figured out why. As she passed over a manhole symbols flashed, electricity tickled her skin, and she tasted ozone. It didn’t hurt, but she could immediately tell something was different.
<Warding!> She helped Razael gather up Bart and finished crossing the street to take cover in an alley. <Damn.> She caught sight of herself in a window and saw her reflection clearly shining back at her.
The Amazons were moving quickly to consolidate their hold on their territory. Step one was warding against one of the angels’ greatest strengths: the ability to turn insubstantial. Ava and her team were now vulnerable to the most common form of surveillance: a simple eyeball, or in this case, a much more powerful Amazonian one.
“We need to get off the street and find something to help blend in.” Ava didn’t like it, but walking around in gleaming, silver armor was just asking for trouble. With hundreds of Amazons and only three of them, they needed to blend in. She had to prioritize security versus speed and stealth. The mission objective dictated speed and stealth took priority. She made note of the ward’s location for the coming assault on the island.
She led the group forward for a few blocks and looked for a place to change and something to change into.
“Move!” A voice yelled, followed by a loud SNAP, as Ava approached another intersection.
She held up a raised fist that instructed the group to halt. Bart and Razael immediately moved to find cover while she crept forward. She peered around the edge of the brick building and grimaced at what she saw. A line of shackled men was walking down the middle of the road with two Amazons herding them like sheep. The men had been stripped of their clothes and many showed signs of recent beatings. It didn’t take a big leap for Ava to figure out what was going on.
The Amazons were a female species, but they still needed men to reproduce. That man then needed to be killed by his new daughter when she reached maturity at a much more rapid pace than normal humans.
<This takeover must me a smorgasbord for them.> Ava watched the line of men pass. She wanted to help, but she had a mission to complete. She would be passing this intel on to Michael though. Even if the men did the dirty today, it would still be a while before the Amazonian young matured and killed them. The Divine Host had a little time. <But how many will we be facing?>
Ava didn’t want to think about how many more male prisoners were being taken all over the island. It had been evacuated during the battle with Beelzebub and then the leviathan, but there was no doubt in Ava’s mind that tens thousands of people didn’t make it out. They were huddling in their apartments, praying for someone to come save them, and all they were getting were angry women coming to enslave, procreate, and eventually kill them.
Things were not looking up at the moment for those poor men.