"We're finished." Clone said with the solemnity of a dying man, yet with an undertone of flippancy which belied the situation.
Up to this point, I had held out some vain hope that everything would be fine. That we would dig in and brave this storm. A storm the likes of which we had never seen, and that we could never have been ready for, but surely bravable nonetheless. And yet, with just two words from an angel I've only just realized I held in high regard, any notion of triumph vanished like shadows at noon.
Of course we were finished. The entire weight of the Underworld (seemingly) was bearing down on us, and even if we had a day to prepare, I doubt much more resistance was to be had. Angels are messengers (and occasionally entertainers) of the gods, not fighters. Even still, with Lady Palutena supporting us, I would have had high hopes. Yet, She was out of the picture. Either She fled (unthinkable), or she was doing… something in the divination room. Something very important, I'm sure. Gods I wish I was listening to Clone earlier. Speaking of listening to Clone…
"...which is why I want you to escape." Okay, that's it.
"I wasn't listening." There. I said it. Maybe now I'll get some gods forsaken context. Aside from rolling his eyes, Clone didn't even say anything about it. Win-win.
"I said that this is almost certainly the start of the Story, which is why I want you to escape." Clone repeated, his eyes boring into mine. Then I fully registered the message.
"The Story, this is it?" I asked in half dismay, half disbelief.
"I'm afraid so." Was the grim response. "Maybe even chapter two." Clone looked directly at you. "But it's hard to tell."
Gods, the Story. I started running my hand through my hair. Us angels had been waiting for… I don't even know how long for our story to begin. Ever since Lady Palutena revealed it to us, with barely contained excitement, we had eagerly awaited its arrival. Speculated the plot, the medium, and especially the main character. But it wasn't supposed to be like this. Never in any of our worst nightmares could it take such a dark, twisted turn. All the more reason to wonder: who's the protagonist? What's the finale? I said as much to Clone.
"Precisely. That's why I want you, and every other angel for that matter, to evacuate Angel Land. This clearly being the inciting incident, there is nothing we can do to win. We regroup, narrow down the main character, figure out the plot, then go all in for the climax." He flashed his smile. "Who knows, it could be either of us."
Pft. As if. I pity the fool that would have to go through my train of thought. Clone, on the other hand, seemed like a good candidate. Natural leader, confident, a fully described appearance, and a (speculative) relationship to Lady Palutena Herself! Recollecting myself, I started to plan our next steps.
"So where do we go now?"
"You misunderstand me, Code. I want you to leave now." His brilliant smile had faded into a sad smirk. Both of my hands found their way into my hair.
"I- But- You can't just stay here!" I managed to splutter. "Are you trying to get yourself killed in a dramatic and heroic fashion?" The whole temple shuddered as if to highlight my point. Some art fell off the walls and the omnipresent lights flickered before (thankfully) returning to normal. Time was running short. Clone also made this connection, as he seemed to have aged a few centuries under the newfound stress of the situation.
"Not if I can help it, no." He managed to find the humor for such a light hearted response. "But someone has to tell the others. Someone they will listen to." He gave me a pointed look with that remark. And as much as I would've liked to refute it, it was true. I had kind of fallen out of favor with the other angels, them being the conniving rule breakers they are. So what I had created an 'oppressive' and 'totally uncool' Code of Conduct that everyone must abide by? Clone, on the other hand, was a strong source of guidance, second only to Hole who in turn was second only to Lady Palutena. Which reminded me.
"What about Lady Palutena and… the stuff you said earlier?" Play it cool. I was super listening. Uh huh.
"We'll just have to hope that she can handle it. Worst case scenario… uh… doesn't bear thinking about." Clone's hand found its place over his heart. "Just go to one of her temples on the surface, and take any angel that is willing. I'll get Hole and the others and find you. We'll be fine." He turned towards the shrouded door. "Eventually. Now quit wasting screen time and go." And so I went, leaving behind yet another angel to their fate. An alarming habit, and one I intended on breaking.
As for rounding up any survivors, The Nest came to mind; the shared home of all Angel Land's youngest. Last I checked, there were in fact a few children there. They weren't strong enough to defend themselves and unable to fly. So, with destination and determination set, I poured on the speed and raced through the Temple's halls.
Bursting out one of the many side entrances, I spared a brisk scan to check for monsters. Seeing nothing but the burning paradise, I took a running leap into the sky. I trusted (hoped) that the demons were focused on the main entrance, and knew (was crushingly aware) of the time constraints before the Guard dispersed (was routed). Also, since this was the Story, my fate is, or will be, written. Therefore, if I'm meant to die, I will. This doesn't mean I'm not afraid of death, or that I wouldn't try to stay alive, just that some liberties could be taken. Especially when other lives were at risk. Innocent, young lives.
Thankfully, the Nest was rather close to Lady Palutena's Temple. Hitting the landing pad running, I kicked down the door. Wow, that hurt. But it sure felt good. I darted around the living space like a particularly perturbed hummingbird. Nothing. Stifling a sense of dread, I took the stairs three at a time up to the sleeping rooms. Surely they would be here. It was still the dead of night, after all. I opened the door quickly (my leg still hurt) to see no angels. Ducking to check under the beds didn't change that. I swirled around to kick the adjacent door down. Seriously, ow. No more kicking doors. My lame leg aside, still no children.
I nearly called off the search, until I heard the creaking of a window. A glaringly wide open window. I limped towards it with newfound hope. Or was that fear? Before I could decide, I spotted what had opened the window. Rather, whom. Flying away as swiftly as they could, were Lift and Care. Each was hampered by an impressive amount of little angels, all clinging on for dear life. This time I did give in to the temptation to cheer.
Lift managed to turn enough to see me (no small feat) and flashed what I think was a smile. It's pretty hard to see at this distance. I, in turned, waved. One of the braver (or more thoughtless) kids waved back before wrapping their arm back around Care's leg. I allowed myself a relieved smile. It looked like things would be fine after all.
Neatly following this chain of thought, the entirety of the room I was in began to rumble and the walls began to crack. I was looking back at this when a gut wrenching and all-too familiar roar caused me to twist back around to the window. I would have screamed a warning but the beast seemed to have that covered.
Lift and Care were taking aggressive evasive maneuvers when the shark-thing ripped straight in between them. It missed, but the sudden turbulence mixed with the panicked flying caused three or four children to fall. I was out the window and flying before they even began to scream. Fast as I was, however, three dark blurs were substantially faster. Homing in on the falling angels with unnerving accuracy, the figures neatly intercepted each before I was halfway there.
My closer position combined with their slowing down allowed me to get a (somewhat) good look. Each had massive, leathery wings, as if to directly mock angelkind. Attached to these wings were skeletal figures with disproportionately long limbs. Their skin, if you could call it that, was akin to a preserved corpse, and clung tight to every bone. Worse of all were the horns atop their heads, along with an all-too-wide smile full of pointed teeth. Literal devils then. Great.
It would seem as if the kids were screaming louder than they were when they were plummeting to their deaths, but I didn't blame them. If I was caught by a waking nightmare in the dead of night, I would probably scream too. Rather shrilly, at that. Jokes aside, the shark thing was coming for another run, which spelled disaster to the distracted Lift and Care. I gave a warning yell, followed by several frantic gestures I doubt they would've seen had they even been looking at me.
Care got the message, twisting into a sharp downward spiral without a second to lose. Lift, on the other hand, ran out of seconds. Noiselessly, he vanished into the beasts gaping maw, along with the remaining children. So without ceremony was it, that I expected him to reappear once the monster passed, revealing it to be a trick of perspective. This was not to be.
Gasping from shock and plain ol' tiredness, I pulled even with Care, who was hovering in place. Staring at where Lift used to be. I really didn't want to, but now was not the time for mourning. I had to refocus her efforts.
"Care." I tried. No response. The creature was a decent bit away, seemingly content with it's recent meal, but I could feel it's attention on us. And it was hungry for more.
"Care!" I shouted, need for low volume gone now that the thing we were hiding from knew where we were. Goddess, did I want to scream at the world. But that would come later. Right now, I focused on Care's tear streaked face and those of two terrified children.
"Care," I continued, in what I hoped was a reassuring tone, "I need you to head to the surface world. Find one of the Lady's temples and hide until someone finds you. Do you understand?" The two kids nodded, but Care was looking past me. Looking at the three demons, still escaping with their quarry. I wanted to swear quite viciously, but children were present. I settled for running a hand through my hair.
"Don't worry about that, I'll handle it." Hopefully. "Just do as I said, and keep an eye on that… thing." I spared a glance at said thing, which seemed to be closer. "I have a feeling it won't follow you too far, but… just be careful. Alright?" A shaky but determined nod was my answer, and with some good lucks from the kids, I made chase for the spindly devils.
Though faster than me normally, they seemed burdened by the extra weight and the spirited fight put up by each child. It would seem the fledglings would rather take their chances with their underdeveloped wings than with wherever they were being taken. Brave kids, they would've been great angels. Will. Will be great angels. I had a chance to fix this and by the Lady I would not fail them.
I was pouring on more speed when one of the demons looked back. It seemed to communicate with its brethren, then they each stopped. A fight? Except, no. They bowed their heads in unison, before a rip in the very sky appeared in front of them. My wings missed a beat. The tear in reality revealed a world of fire and evil. A world of wicked and demented energy that I could feel in my bones and the pores on my face. It lead to the Underworld. And each demon promptly swooped in.
Allowing myself to colorfully curse in a way that would make Tough blush, I narrowed my eyes and focused on my new target. It's not like I really have another option, anyway. Don't pursue and live with that guilt and the disdain of the few angels left? Not likely.
The portal was getting smaller in a dramatic yet inefficient way, but I couldn't bring myself to worry. I wanted to save the kids, don't get me wrong, but the door closing in my face was a good alibi… No. Stop that right now, Code. The Angel's Code of Conduct was quite direct in that if you could save another angel, you must. Doubly so if that angel was undeveloped. Triply so if there were three or four of them and they are literally being dragged into literal Hell.
It was with such thoughts in mind that I made it through the rift with seconds to spare. Predictable, really. What wasn't predictable, however, was the sight that greeted me.
I was no novice angel. On the contrary, I was quite proud of my service record. Delivering important messages, watching over those that pray to Lady Palutena, and guiding lost travelers was all in a day's work. I've even made coffee for Her once or twice! Yes, I was experienced in my relatively young age, but delving into the Underworld? Forgive me if I say that it was a new experience.
This particular section of the Underworld was a massive (and I'm talkin' fit all of Angel Land and then some capital 'M' Massive) tube. It stretched upwards forever I was willing to bet, and the same was likely true downwards, except downwards eventually faded into an inky darkness. All along the walls were various caves and cutouts, reminiscent of an anthill cross section or a hornets nest. Monsters and demons of all shapes and sizes flew along in seemingly set airways, and seeing them reminded me of two things: A, I was terribly exposed just treading air here, and two, I was supposed to be in a high speed/stakes chase. Right. Returning to our regularly scheduled program.
The three demons in question were easy to spot since they were the only ones not abiding by the air traffic rules. They also seemed to believe they had shaken me, and were taking their sweet time going to wherever they were going. Seizing the initiative, I started to close in for a sneak attack. Then one of them swooped down and into a cave. No matter, I'll get them later. Now for the critical blow… and another broke formation to dive into yet another opening. You know what? It's fine. I wanted to go angel hunting in the Underworld anyway. The more loose ends the merrier!
When the final devil made for a cave, I was ready. Nearly-forgotten-sword unsheathed, I came crashing down right on top of it. As I predicted, they were made for speed, not durability. So, it was with a ripping sound not unlike paper, that I slew my first monster of the night. Hurray. What was less hurray worthy was the fact that momentum still applied in the Underworld. As a result, me, the dead demon, and the (hopefully unscathed) kid were plummeting into a cavern in a tangle of limbs and confused wings. I hoped that screaming was the kid or else this valiant rescue was about to become rather embarrassing.
After spending entirely too long falling and flailing, we hit, bounced, and skidded to a halt. I quickly extricate myself from the corpse and breathe a sigh of relief. Then the corpse moved. I jumped, made a half motion to stab it, and screamed inside my head before I remembered. The child. That I was expressly rescuing. I breathed a sigh of relief before flipping the definitely dead demon over. Laying flat on his back and looking a little worse for wear was the little angel.
I barely had a chance to take in his messy brown hair and entirely too small wings before he was bouncing around and hugging me before stopping to bounce some more then hugging then trying to bounce and hug all the while repeating thank-yous. I decided to indulge this before eventually prying him off to hold at arm's length. I did my best to mimic Clone's reassuring smile.
"No problem, uh…" I forgot that he wouldn't have a name at this age, so I cast about for a placeholder. The hereto unnamed angel, however, seemed to have it covered.
"Pit!" He supplied with a smile, his little wings flapping like an excited puppy. Cute imagery aside, however, this gave me pause. How did he get a name so young? Only Lady Palutena can bestow a name, and only with good reason, so what gives? I also imagined, with a grimace, just what event or foreseen event would be needed to warrant a name like 'Pit'. Although judging by his proud expression, he certainly wasn't bothered by the unlucky name. I pretended not to feel pity. Heh. 'Pitty'.
"Pleasure to meet you, Pit. I'm Code." I released my grip on his shoulders to offer a handshake, but his entire body froze up. Panicked and expecting a monster to be behind me, I cast about for any dangers. There was nothing. I looked back at his still frozen features with a concerned look. Was he even breathing? Is this something kids normally do? I poked his chest delicately, as if afraid he might shatter.
"Pit?" This broke him out of his trance with an extended gasp for air. Guess he hadn't been breathing after all. Good set of lungs on him.
"Are you the Code? The Angel's Code of Conduct Code?" He gushed, and was that an honest to Goddess sparkle in his eye?!
"Uh, yeah." I managed to get out before his wings started beating so fast I was worried he was going to fly off. At least, I would've been worried if they hadn't been worryingly small. It was probably a touchy subject, so I would hold off for now.
"Ooooh, I can't believe it's you!" He continued, not noticing or caring about the perplexed look on my face. "I've memorised the whole thing! The stuff about the hot springs? Classic!" That brought a real smile to my face. Who knew I had a fan?
"I'm glad you like it! How many times have you read it anyway?" I meant the last part as a joke, but it somehow put a dent in his ecstatic mood. He scratched the back of his head and scuffed the floor with his foot.
"Well, uh, I've been wanting to learn how to read, honest! It's just that it's hard and things kept coming up and, well…" he became increasingly flustered here "Lady Palutena read it to me." As Pit looked away in embarrassment I couldn't help but wonder why Lady Palutena took such special interest in him. Sure, I was glad that new angels were being read the official unofficial rules, but to have the Lady Herself do it? A vague notion nestled itself in the back of my head. I couldn't quite describe what it was, but it certainly existed. Then I realized.
"You used Her proper title!" I exclaimed, happy beyond belief over such a little thing. Well, it has been a stressful few… you know what, I have no idea how much time has passed. I think ten minutes was mentioned earlier, and I know it's still night (that was a guess at this point, seeing how the Underworld had no discernible timetable), but this whole situation was getting ahead of me, and I needed to lie down.
"Of course I did." Pit said in a confused voice as I sat down. "What else would I call her?" We'd work on the capitalization later. For now though…
"You're a good kid Pit." I was laying down now.
"Uuuh, what are you… oh! Are we gonna-" The rest was lost to me as I passed out on the rocky, yet warm ground of the Underworld.