I suppose it’s time to explain.
Lucent Redoubt is one of the two outlying fortifications supporting Bastion in its ill-fated vigil over Eden; the other being its sister fort, Vespertine Redoubt, which didn’t see much action during the Nephilim invasion and, as far as I know, still serves the troops of the Faneguard.
In the early days of the war, War and I were holed up in there for three days, alone, as victims of a plan gone awry. Death and Fury were supposed to taunt and harass Absalom’s main force into committing to open battle in the area between Bastion and the Redoubt, where they would become surrounded from all sides: Abbadon and the main body of the angelic army pouring out of Bastion, Barachiel leading a smaller host as bait, Death and Fury in pursuit, and War and me as the element of surprise.
It was a good plan. History credits Abbadon and Death for hatching it, but in truth, it was War’s idea. He even developed some of the details on his own before Death overrode him on who would harass the enemy and who would sit in ambush. Need I say which role War wanted? But Death wouldn’t let him loose on the enemy, in fear that he’d lose control and engage the entire Horde on his own. Which was, if I’m honest, what we were all thinking.
Oh, don’t worry. War wasn’t the only one to be judged as incompetent. Death decided that Fury wasn’t strong enough to babysit him in the Redoubt, while I, being a ranged coward, wasn’t big enough of a threat to taunt the Horde into a massive attack. Yeah. It was that bad. In his defense, Death was under a lot of pressure to perform as the leader and the only Firstborn among us—or that’s what I told myself when his posturing stirred up fratricidal feelings in me.
Either way, for the plan to work, it was essential to create the impression that the Redoubt was well and truly deserted. Otherwise not even Absalom on his rampage would be crazy enough to walk into an obvious trap. To this effect, the fort was evacuated with great pomp in broad daylight within sight of enemy scouts, and we crept in under the cover of night, hidden from prying eyes by my magics.
As you probably know from history, the plan did work, mostly, though at a great cost. Barachiel fell under the black wave of the Firstborn early in the battle. It was a shock that still reverberates through Heaven, years after the war. Her death crushed the morale of the angelic army and the forces she had led were decimated. Despite his own catastrophic losses, Absalom managed to retreat with the better part of the Firstborn and lived to fight many other battles in the war that was supposed to end then and there.
What you probably don’t know, because historians don’t often bother with such details, is that the whole thing was delayed, almost fatally, when Barachiel unexpectedly engaged an advance detachment of Nephilim that lost its way or was about to start digging under Bastion or aimed to pull the conflict to an area better suited for the Nephilim offensive. I honestly can’t recall if we ever learned its original purpose. What it did achieve, unwittingly, was to postpone the ambush.
We knew what was up. The standoff, albeit minor, took place within sight of the Redoubt, and Death’s crows transmitted news almost in real-time. News and orders. And our orders were to stay put at any cost, lest we alert Absalom of the trap.
And so, we squatted in the echoing halls of the abandoned keep, with nothing to do but count the occasional tremors from the artillery fire. I was fine with this arrangement. By then I’d already grown sick of the odor of Nephilim blood and its stains on my attire and on my soul. And it was a nice place, the Redoubt. Probably bare and utilitarian by angelic standards, it was a palace of beauty and splendor compared to our usual accommodations. The main hall, where we bunked, was a circular, domed arena large enough to gallop a horse, all in white marble, with a majestic colonnade running its perimeter—accessible only if you’re winged or really good at climbing highly polished pillars—and a round pool encircling a fountain in the center.
Fortunately, the garrison took all that might’ve been of value when they evacuated, because War seemed about to start breaking things and turning them to dust with the grinding of his teeth only an hour into the distant battle. A battle he could hear and smell and surely sense with whatever deranged sixth sense he had been gifted, or cursed with—but was forbidden to join. In another hour, I began to fear that the seismic disturbances generated by his ceaseless stomping and intermittent punching of the walls with his monstrous gauntlet would be detected all the way in Absalom’s main encampment to the ruin of our plans.
I expressed my worry in one of the crow-carried messages for Death. His response was extremely helpful. “Find a way to subdue him.”
Subdue him? Subdue War?
“You subdue him!” I muttered, watching the scrap of parchment self-combust with a green flash of Death’s magics as the crow fluttered away through a tall window. My perch, high on the gallery atop the colonnade, trembled to the rhythm of War’s tireless pacing. It was getting to me. Now I was nervous too.
I tried to engage him in conversation. Flatter him with questions about some of his less well-known conquests. Make provocative jokes to arrest his attention. He just scowled and grumbled. Yeah. That attempting to talk War into settling down was a waste of breath came as no surprise to me either.
But then I had a brilliant idea. I suggested we use the opportunity for some exercise and spar without weapons and armor.
The look he gave me, head to toes and back again, was priceless. “Wrestle? With you?”
“Why not?” I spread my arms and turned a full circle, showing off my flawless form. “You can keep the gauntlet if you think it’s unfair.”
He snorted. “And when I crush your bones, will you call on Death to give me another lesson?”
“Actually, I’m thinking it’s time I give you a couple lessons of my own.”
The brand on his forehead flared with a little too much enthusiasm for my liking. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“Oh, yeah,” I muttered to myself. “It’s gonna be so much fun.”
Inside, I was thinking: Death, you owe me one more.
We stripped down to our underpants. And the gauntlet. Now that it came to it, War seemed troubled, and I knew what troubled him. He clearly had an advantage in terms of size, weight, power, and ferocity, but not enough to make up for a missing arm. Yet the gauntlet was a weapon; one that could indeed crush my bones. And in the heat of melee, War might not be able to refrain from using it to do just that.
Not for the last time, I found myself doubting my ever-reliable, much-vaunted wisdom. Getting crippled wouldn’t fit the plan any better than betraying our occupation of the keep. I almost started to explain how I was only joking when I’d said he could keep the gauntlet.
But then he moved to detach it.
Something inside me became detached at that moment too. A door that had been shut and bolted creaked open, and a whiff of fresh air disturbed the centennial dust inside. He would fight fairly, even if it meant certain defeat.
“Don’t,” I said.
He looked at me under his bushy brows, furrowed in a perpetual frown. Before he could object, I let my right arm shift.
His features went slack. Even the frown. He gazed at me, and I gazed back, quite a bit longer than was strictly necessary and it made me ridiculously self-aware. Heat spread through my neck and face.
I distracted myself by rolling my shoulders and hopping in place to test my balance. It was far from ideal! But, I reckoned, if War got used to severely uneven weight distribution, so could I. The fact that he’d had decades for it, while I’d have a few minutes of warmup at best, I decided to put out of my mind.
“Fair?” I said at last, flexing my monster arm.
He nodded, flexing his. “Fair.”
And so, we got down to business. I’m man enough to admit that he was kicking my ass at first. The arm set me off balance so that every dodge I tried was just a little too late, every dash just a little too short, and when we grappled, he’d just pin me to the floor till I had to beg for air.
“Have you had enough humiliation?” he taunted.
I laughed in his face—only to be winded as he charged at me and swept me off my feet again.
I don’t know how long this went on, but eventually, my morale began to suffer. I was getting bruised and beaten, and worse, the awkward posture and the lumbering, half-controlled moves of the monster arm tired me. Yet War seemed to thrive on exertion. Even without Chaoseater, the fighting appeared to invigorate him, and the longer it lasted, the brighter burned his fiery brand. Which wasn’t good. The point of my heroic sacrifice had been to calm him down, distract him from his battle-lust, let him vent—and now it was starting to look like I’d poured oil on the fire instead.
But just as I was about to call it, something happened. I don’t recall the details as well as I wish I did, but he made some mistake that gave me the long-coveted opening. I managed to trip him up in the middle of an awkward turn and he fell face-down. Before he could get his air back, I mounted his burly back and twisted his good arm in a painful shoulder-lock.
For the first time since we started, he was the one to tap the floor.
It did wonders for my mood.
In the next round, he got me again, but now I could see signs that he too was getting tired, or distracted, or perhaps bored. Whichever was the case, either he was making more mistakes, or I reached the level of mastery of my own body where I could devote sufficient attention to detecting and abusing them. The way I remember it, there was no “learning curve”. The transition was abrupt, like when your eyes suddenly open to the environment once you start trusting your horse to not throw you in the dirt the second you stop gripping the saddle horn with the desperate urgency of a man hanging off a cliff.
Yup. That had been me, once upon a time. Thank God that Mayhem can’t speak and gossip about our early days.
Anyway, I finally found my rhythm and learned to account for the asymmetry of my form. I realized that the abnormal reach of the monster arm gave me an advantage I could use to surprise or confuse War. More of his jabs and punches missed and after a while I could sidestep almost every lunge. Another few rounds, and I could win every other; a few more later, I had the upper hand in most.
“Have you had enough humiliation?” I asked at some point, and no, I wasn’t being sarcastic. I very much hoped he would say yes and call it, although I knew what a foolish hope that was. By now we were both short of breath, slick with sweat, filthy, bruised, and covered in a mesh of scratches and fine cuts, some of which bled and all of which smarted. If he didn’t call it, I would.
Or so I lied to myself. Winning had made me bloodthirsty and bloody-minded. I would subdue War, if it was the last thing I did.
“You know I will never surrender,” he growled, and with a roar, lurched into another attack.
We resumed fighting with renewed energy, but it didn’t last. I started making mistakes too now, the kind I couldn’t blame on the mass of the arm, and the only reason I wasn’t beaten into a pulp as a result was that War was too tired to punish them. By degrees, the once graceful choreography of our duel degraded into drunken stumbling.
It was now or never.
Drawing on my final reserves, I pulled one of my dirty moves on him and managed to kick him in the chest before he could figure out what I was up to. Hitting the ground with the gauntlet first, he would’ve succeeded in returning the favor as I flung myself on top of him—had I not used my second sight to preempt it. I pinned the gauntlet with the monster arm and pinned his throat with the other, straddling him.
“Enough,” I said.
I’ll never forget the look on his face. I braced myself for rage, disbelief, denial, hatred! But what I saw was pure, almost childlike, awe.
That door inside me that had creaked ajar earlier now blew wide open in a violent draft. I had defeated him, and he admired me for it.
He started to say, “You are victorious,” but I stole the words from his lips.
I kissed him, alright?
I let go of his throat and grabbed a fistful of his hair at the back of his head to hold him still while I ravaged his mouth, his chin, even his nose.
I kind of lost it there for a minute. Or maybe a few minutes, or maybe it was only a few seconds. I don’t know, because I poured the entirety of my tired, battered, cynical self into that kiss and, for a while, didn’t exist outside of it. Hell, maybe I just fainted with fatigue. Either way, I didn’t stop till I ran out of air and had to push up and gasp for it.
The fiery brand on War’s brow shone hotter than ever. The brow was furrowed, but the frown was one of confusion. He tossed his head free of my grip, never taking his eyes off mine. I couldn’t hold his stare. I started to say, “I’m sorry—”
But he stole the words from my lips. Not with a slobbering, blundering brute of a kiss that I had given him, but by gently, yet firmly, pressing his lips on mine.
In the sudden stillness, I heard my heart hammer. I became intensely aware of my body, my monster hand still gripping his gauntlet, my other hand braced above his shoulder. His other hand was on my thigh, his bare chest heaving under mine. He drew his tongue over my lips and some feeling equal parts panic and euphoria bolted from my chest to my gut and back, and again. I opened my mouth and closed my eyes.
We kissed a long time, with nothing but the huffs and puffs of our heavy breathing to fill the echoing silence of the cavernous hall. The excitement was building up in me like the flame of a neglected candle that flickered in the draft till it caught the curtains. I tried to keep my hips well above his stomach, but he shifted up, seeking contact, and when I denied it, he grabbed me by the butt and forced me down.
I might’ve moaned. Loudly. The sound shocked us into pulling apart. For a moment, I was puzzled, unable to translate the set of his features into any emotion I’ve ever seen—at least, not in War.
It was desire.
Swallowing some smartass remark I might’ve been about to spew to lighten the mood, I transferred my weight to the monster arm and wormed my left hand between our bodies, groping in his underpants. War let out a deep, guttural groan when my fist wrapped around his cock. Need I say he is endowed in perfect proportion to his height and girth? The tips of my fingers just barely reached my thumb. He was hot in my hand, nearly enough to hurt, and pulsed with need.
I latched onto his open mouth, sucking his breath in. He kept groaning through his nose to the rhythm of my slow movement. His hand flexed and relaxed on my butt, keeping time. Achingly hard myself, I angled my hips so that his fingers slid inside my underwear and over my hole. How he knew that pressing hard on it without penetrating was exactly what I wanted him to do remains an unsolved mystery. The jolt of pleasure made me gasp. I sped up, hovering over his face, hungry for more of his uncharacteristic abandon.
“Strife…” he whispered with lips wet and swollen from my attentions. “What of you?” He felt about my waist, looking for an access point.
I shook my head. “I’m good,” I said. “Just keep doing what you were doing.”
He studied me a moment, then nodded and his hand slid between my buttocks again. My breath came in bursts like I was the one getting pumped. I swear I could feel the tide of his pleasure rising as sure as if it was my own. Never taking my eyes off his face, I wriggled the claws of my right hand between the fingers of his gauntlet. He squeezed. And shuddered, exhaling a breath so searing it made the air between us ripple.
Some strange impulse made me quit staring at him when it was over. I know I would’ve wanted some privacy after that, and the only way I could think to provide it was to lie down on top of him and rest the side of my face on his broad chest.
His heartbeat gradually slowed down. After a while, I felt his cock soften in my hand. His seed, spilled between us, was still hot enough to burn. Which I made a mental note of, in case something like this was to happen again, however unlikely that seemed.
“War?” I whispered.
Carefully, I pushed up just enough to have a peek.
He had fallen asleep.
I smiled, blinking the incongruous haze out of my eyes. The grip of his hand on mine had become loose enough to detangle our fingers and I let my arm shrink back to its normal shape with a wince of familiar discomfort. I then settled my head on the warm bulk of his shoulder and closed my eyes. It took me a while to calm down, but eventually War’s soft snoring and the steady beat of his heart lulled me into a deep, dreamless slumber.