Bethan had only agreed to go camping as a last-ditch effort to save her marriage. David had suggested in desperation, knowing that the trips taken in the formative days of their courtship were still strong memories from a time when their love had been fresh and strong.
They had packed the car and driven three hours to get to the national park. By then, both of them knew it had been a terrible idea, but pride and a dull hope for resolution had made them endure.
Bethan had a horrible headache, and she rubbed her temples consistently as they set up their campsite. David barely spoke to her as they unpacked, clearly hoping for things to blow over as always.
Damnit, she knew why he did it, but she was still so angry. How dare he ignore the problems they were having? Could he not see that this was half the reason they fought so constantly?
Her anger boiled over and she snapped that she was going for a walk in the nearby forest.
David barely grunted in response.
She hiked for an hour or so; her internal monologue dishing out the abuse at a husband she now realised that she had not loved for a long time. She cried a little as she walked then, but whether in sorrow or relief she couldn't say. Suddenly, the forest broke into a clearing, with a pond at the far end fed by a small river that trickled over the accumulated debris of autumn leaves.
She sat on a boulder and took off her boots, noting ruefully the large blister that was forming on her left heel.
Bethan stood up to bathe her foot in the cool water, but stopped short.
What she had initially taken to be a large beam of sunlight penetrating the dense canopy was actually emanating from something lying on the ground. Bethan gasped and ran across to the still form, heedless of the sharp rock that sliced her foot open. In a moment she was kneeling at the side of the light source; squinting to see through the luminescence to try and make out any detail.
She raised one hand in front of her eyes, and succeeded in blocking out enough light to see clearly.
In front of her lay an angel.
It was a thought unbidden, springing into her head fully fledged, fully realised. But as soon as she thought it, Bethan knew it to be true. The angel would have stood seven or eight feet tall, had it been capable of doing so. But it was crumpled on the muddy ground as though smashed by a giant hand. It's limbs were askew like a horrific ragdoll. It offended every sense of order in her soul to see the angel in this state.
The reason for the angel's unnerving stillness became apparent when Bethan saw the large gash across it's temple. Unconsciously she fingered her own temple where her headache still rampaged unchecked. From the wound issued a constant, if not gushing, stream of pale ichor that Bethan assumed was its blood. It had a purplish tinge to it, and Bethan assumed automatically that this was a bad sign, although she couldn't have said why. She pulled her jumper over her head and tore one of the sleeves off. Hesitating, she gingerly reached out and touched the cloth to the ragged wound.
As soon as Bethan had made contact, she shrieked, for a hand had shot up from the angel's side and gripped her wrist like a vice. The scream strangled in her throat though, for as the hand had grasped for her, the angel's eyes had opened, fixated on her own like lasers.
It was the most terrifying thing she had ever seen.
The eyes were timeless, and soulless, and more penetrative than anything Bethan had ever seen. The colour shifted furiously, from emerald to sky blue, to crimson, to black and bronze; faster than she could keep track of. They saw everything that she had ever done, and ever would, and sat in judgement.
They scared the hell out of her.
In an instant, the angel was on its feet, towering over the diminutive human.
It spoke, and its voice was a voice of judgement, vengeance and a call to war. It was Doom, and Death, and Redemption.
Bethan was flat on her ass in shock, stuttering in panic and fear. The angel knew her intimately, knew her maiden name, knew everything.
She stammered, "Wha... what the hell..."
Her heart pounded like a drum and her vision blurred in the light still blazing forth from every pore of its angelic skin.
With the speed that it had risen, it had spattered her with several drops of its thick, translucent blood. She wiped it away absently, and then in realisation stared at the angel's face. The wound that had incapacitated it was almost gone, and it seemed that the light was healing the angel.
"Please... please." The immensity of her desire for an explanation overwhelmed her, and she trailed off with all her questions unspoken.
The angel, whatever other qualities it possessed, seemed to understand her silence.
"I do not have much time, Bethan Gregory. I was struck down by an ancient foe, and they will return in haste to make certain of my demise.
"You are not meant to be here, nor to see this. You are in severe danger."
Bethan whispered, "Who... are you?"
The angel seemed to sigh.
"My name is not known to your theologians or historians. I am a soldier of the Lord; his vengeance. I am that I am.
I am Hierosmiel, the Servant."
As the angel spoke, great wings of burning light erupted from its shoulder blades, briefly blinding Bethan. In Hierosmiel's hand appeared a glistening spear, searing with the same pristine flames that surrounded the angel's wings.
The Servant smiled briefly. Then as quickly as it appeared, the smile was gone, replaced by an angelic scowl.
"It comes. HIDE."
Shocked by the urgency in the angel's voice, Bethan scooted backwards until she was in the cover of a low bush. The Servant was casting those terrible eyes about, searching for any sign of its implacable foe.
Then, like a thunderbolt, the Demon exploded into the middle of the clearing. It was all that Bethan could do not to retch in horror. The Demon was monstrous in appearance; its skin was charred and cracked from constant immolation. Pus and lymph oozed from every fault line, and massive chains of razor wire wrapped around every limb added blood to the combination as they sliced into the Demon's flesh with every motion. Bizarrely, each fresh wound seemed to invigorate the Demon. In it's talons it clutched twin axes that were already dripping rivulets of blood from gobbets of flesh caught on the pitted blades.
Before Bethan or the Servant had time to react, the Demon was on the attack, slashing viciously with both axes at the angel's neck. Though taken by surprise, Hierosmiel was swift to react, bringing the shaft of the silver spear up to block in a shower of sparks.
Undeterred, the Demon pressed the attack in a flurry of blows, and for a moment the angel was hard pressed to maintain any form of defense.
Both angelic and demonic warriors were bleeding now from a dozen minor injuries, and Bethan winced to see the gore flying. Suddenly the Servant fell to one knee; an unexpected slash from the Demon having clipped a tendon behind the angel's leading leg. The Demon swarmed forwards, confident of victory. A back hand with an axe tore the glimmering spear from the Servant's grasp, and the other took the grasping hand completely off at the wrist. The angel screamed, and the Demon howled in pleasure.
Bethan sobbed silently. Her mind, already stretched to breaking, was beginning to crack from the strain.
Hierosmiel was kneeling now, the severed stump of the angel's arm cradled in the other hand. The Demon was pacing back and forth now, flipping the dripping axes from hand to hand, confident in the angel's doom. The Servant looked up to the sky and then briefly across to where Bethan was hidden. A look of resignation settled on those perfect features, and the terrible eyes stilled.
As the Demon swept an axe towards the angel's neck, Bethan closed her eyes tight; hearing only the grotesque sound of the impact.
The Demon lifted its head in another triumphant howl that split the air like a hundred steam valves venting in unison.
When the sound faded, Bethan opened her eyes to find both angel and Demon gone. Her sobs escaped her then, great bubbling, choking coughs that she had no control over. She sat there until the tears subsided, trying to make sense of what she had seen; trying to rationalise and find some sense of equilibrium. Eventually, her brain did what all human brains do in such situations, and she began to believe that she must have dreamt it; after all, there was no sign of a supernatural battle anywhere in the still and pristine clearing.
With this decision still settling in her mind, she pulled her shoes on and began the walk back to where she had left David. The sheer mundanity of the world began to soothe her, and she had half forgotten what she had 'dreamt' by the time she reached the camp. David didn't even say anything when she turned to him and said that she planned to leave him.
It was clear that he had expected it.
His eyes looked wet for a moment in the firelight, but when he turned back to face her, she knew she must have been mistaken. There was nothing but indifference there; the world a little colder for it.
Bethan couldn't recall a time when she was more at peace.