Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Horror  ➡  Occult  ➡  Undead

Malakhim Volume 6: The End of Everything

The End of Everything

Malakhim Volume 6

by Aleph

Published at Shakespir

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2017 Aleph. All Rights Reserved.

Produced by Malakh Studios, LLC.

ISBN: 978–1–4675–9605–3

Cover Art by Deranged Doctor Design at http://www.derangeddoctordesign.com. Copyright © Deranged Doctor Design 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, by photocopy, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the copyright owner and Malakh Studios, LLC.

Thank you for downloading this ebook. You are welcome to share it with your friends and family at your discretion. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non–commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed this book, please return to your favorite ebook retailer to discover other works by this author, or visit us at our website at http://www.malakh.com. Thank you for your support.





And a few other words



This book makes use of free fonts via fontsquirrel, and we are grateful for the generosity of Manfred Klein, Dieter Steffman, Galdino Otten, Darcy Baldwin and others. Thank you for sharing your talent with everyone. You can find these fonts and more at fontsquirrel, at http://www.fontsquirrel.com.

This series is dedicated to the lost children everywhere, but it is not intended for children. Parents, please take an interest in what your children are reading, and help guide them through the tough parts of what they’re exposed to in this world. It’s not fair to expect them to sort through it on their own.

This series is intended to be free for personal use to anyone who wants to read it, but we retain all publication rights so that no one may ever use our characters against our will. We want to point out in particular that we do not consent to its being archived or used by Google or any of its minions in any way.

The characters portrayed are works of fiction, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is unintentional, somewhat disturbing, and maybe even a little flattering.

And please, for our peace of mind, please do remember this is fantasy. Reality is in the other direction.


  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright and License Information
  • Thanks
  • Part One
  • Part Two
  • Part Three
  • Part Four
  • Part Five
  • Part Six
  • Part Seven
  • Part Eight
  • Part Nine
  • Part Ten
  • Part Eleven
  • Part Twelve
  • Part Thirteen
  • Part Fourteen
  • Part Fifteen
  • Part Sixteen
  • Part Seventeen
  • Part Eighteen
  • Part Nineteen
  • Part Twenty
  • Part Twenty-One
  • Part Twenty-Two
  • Goodbye
  • Death by Chocolate
  • Part One
  • Part Two
  • Part Three
  • Part Four
  • Part Five
  • Part Six
  • Part Seven
  • Part Eight
  • Part Nine
  • Part Ten
  • Part Eleven
  • Part Twelve
  • Part Thirteen
  • Part Fourteen
  • More of Malakhim

Part One


“My heart was filled with a desperate hope

Yet the sky swallowed up its light.

Sang of heartless anger slaked by the blood of Heaven.

The air became as an opened tomb.”

—Book of Makhvet (6:1–4)


Nathan stared down at a blank sheet of paper. His left hand came to rest against it, cradling a felt–tipped pen. It wobbled a little in his grip. It shouldn’t have. He’d long since recovered his dexterity.

He found himself distracted by smells from the kitchen. He took a deep breath. There was something about basil, when it cooked. Nothing else could replicate it. There was so much fresh basil in the oven right now, wilting gently into ricotta and mozzarella. So much cheese. It was one of many things that had changed over recent years. He’d never really eaten a lot of cheese, living on his own. He couldn’t really decide if there was a reason for that or not. He didn’t normally dwell on such things.

“Come on,” the boy’s voice echoed in his memory. “Don’t be so stingy! We have to have lots of cheese! It’s the best part!”

He’d set something in motion, Nathan realized, when he’d let the child loose in his kitchen. That particular set of snakes wouldn’t fit back in the tin, figuratively speaking. Nathan took a deep breath, and held it for a moment. He let the air out slowly through his nostrils, and shook his head gently. Variety was good for him anyway. Better for his nutrition. Variety seemed to be better for the child’s soul as well. There was nothing wrong with letting a few ambitious kitchen escapades complicate life.

He told himself that, and waited for it to sink in.

There was the faint whiff of ground beef. Green peppers, too. “Every layer doesn’t have to be different, Ben,” Nathan’s cautions had fallen on deaf ears. Ben was too excited, and having too much fun.

“Of course it does! Why else have layers!” Ben had planned the dish out so carefully, but the boy’s enthusiasm had taken over in the moment. He’d run to the refrigerator, and kept thinking of new things to add.

It was a rare sight, and Nathan was dwelling on it more than he meant to. Ben could be impulsive, but usually in moments of fear or temper. It wasn’t often that happy impulses drove the boy’s actions. “Hey, does God really care if I put beef and cheese together? My Mom never seemed to decide. They just seem meant to be together!”

Nathan stared down at the pen. He rested it against the paper at last, and watched it slide. It pulled away, then swept right into a soft curve. At first he wasn’t sure what he wanted to write there. Something under the surface of his thoughts took over, and shifted the pen. Another line jagged sharply to the right, then swept up again.

“You know I don’t get into those discussions, Ben. As far as I know, God’s never punished anyone for their food choices. Microbes do, but everything here’s been chemically and thermally scoured. Do what you like.” Why did he do that? It was a retreat, and he knew it.

A little pull back, ending the upswept line in a gentle curl. The pen dipped left, and rubbed an interrupted swirl into the paper. Nathan lifted the pen away, and stared down at the symbol he’d created.


It wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t have to be. What it represented rarely was. His vision swam a little, and Nathan blinked the interruption away. He slid the pen back into its cap, and let it rest against the paper. Of course the symbol was on his mind. It lay against the breast of his favorite tunic, crafted in tiny painstaking stitches by a hand that had trembled worse than his.

What a long year it had been. As autumn cold descended on his battered bones, it brought an ache that didn’t surprise him. It had been too easy to lay back and let the days pass. Weakness could become an excuse, he told himself, if he let it. Pain and fatigue were easy reasons to forget far too much. His left hand tightened on the pen. His right swept forward, and snatched the paper off the desk. He crumpled it, and closed his eyes. The ache deepened. It was getting cold so quickly this year.

He shoved the loose papers away, and pulled his budget book open. Putting things in order was relaxing, and called to a stronger part of his spirit. Tending to what was needful and necessary was always a comfort, at times like these. A little distance in his perspective always helped. Calm settled into Nathan’s human form.

A muffled yell. “What?!”

Nathan tilted his head to listen, but kept on writing. When evil seized the boy, he always felt it. Whatever troubled Ben now, it was of a lesser nature. If the situation turned serious, he’d soon know.

Heavy steps, and a clatter. A bit of furniture, Nathan surmised, falling victim to the child’s temper. His right eyebrow ticked, but he kept his focus on the budget. He would need a long–term plan, as he built up his book again. Work would be slow going until he’d recovered from his absence. Luckily there were always clients only he could serve. He staggered his plan for which expenses he would take over, and when. He couldn’t predict much, but he could at least set some fairly attainable goals.

A familiar weight across Nathan’s shoulders made them flex. The motion rippled down his back, calling to structures that weren’t physically there. How deeply Nathan longed to stretch his wings. He couldn’t afford to, though. Not now. They drew too much attention. Nathan needed a nice, peaceful night. He needed sleep a lot more than he needed anything else.

Roasting garlic and bubbling tomato sauce brought a warm, gentle atmosphere with them. So many ingredients cooking away into one jumbled whole. That mixture of confused scents somehow transmuted into something subtler. However Ben’s culinary frolic might taste remained to be discovered, but the lasagna smelled beautiful so far.

It wouldn’t be in the oven much longer. He’d soon trade the drafty living room for a warm kitchen and a full belly. Absently, the angel licked at his teeth. For the first time in weeks, Nathan felt he might actually get a restful kind of slumber.

Down the hall, Ben’s door thumped open. Heavy steps stalked closer, approaching Nathan’s back. Nathan’s mouth settled into a thin, straight line.

“I hate this book!” Ben yelled.

The heavy volume of Cervantes hit the desk, and bounced on top of Nathan’s budget. Nathan’s eyebrow ticked a little higher. That would leave smudges of ink on the cover. It was an old book, and he’d given it to the boy years ago. Despite all odds, it had survived the child’s care relatively unscathed. Until now, that is.

“Do you hear me?” Ben yelled. “I hate it! Why would you make me read something like this?”

“I’m pretty sure the entire sixteenth floor heard you,” Nathan said, his tone casual despite his annoyance. He lifted the heavy volume, and closed his budget book beneath it. “What’s the matter?”

“He was just trying to do good!” That yell drew Nathan’s eyes up. Ben blinked hard, trying to hold back tears. “They humiliated him! They broke him down!” The boy’s voice went high and tight. “All he wanted was to mean something in the world! He believed in things! Why did they have to destroy that for him!”

“Ben…” Nathan didn’t get more than a word in edgewise. Nor did he expect to.

“What kind of ending is that!” Ben yelled, “Dreams are supposed to come true in the end! People are supposed to turn out all right! They’re not supposed to lose their dreams and die!”

“Life isn’t like that, Ben,” Nathan said softly. He lowered his eyes, and ran his fingertips over the rough blue cover. “If you go through life chasing the happy ending, you’ll end up chasing your tail.” Nathan tried to catch Ben’s big green eyes with his, and hold their gaze long enough to get the point across. “That’s what Don Quixote did, Ben. He chased fairy tales until they caught him, and knocked him down.”

“No they didn’t!” Ben slapped the cover of the book, hard, and pinned it to the table. “He had finally found a place where he could be happy!”

A breath caught in Nathan’s throat. He turned in his chair, and faced Ben fully. He draped his forearms across the chair’s back as this rant continued. Nathan studied the boy’s features, confusion settling into his own expression. Had Ben missed something, or had he?

“Sure, it wasn’t perfect.” Ben’s other hand swiped at tears that wouldn’t be stifled. “Sure, they made fun of him, but he didn’t know! Those people loved him!” Ben seized the book, and shoved it towards Nathan’s perplexed face. “Then that jealous guy had to come back and take it all away!” Still holding the book, Ben started to stalk back to his bedroom.

Nathan watched him go. He mulled over Ben’s words. He could see little kernels of truth in them, sparks of insight that he hadn’t expected. It was a different way of looking at the Don’s final quests, to be sure.

“You’ll never understand!” The yell interrupted Nathan’s contemplation. Just before reaching the hall, Ben turned in place. “You don’t have a soul! You don’t know what it’s like when somebody makes it DIE!”

Ben hurled the book at Nathan. Nathan didn’t move. The heavy volume whisked past his head. Fragile pages fluttered like the wings of a trapped bird. The air disturbed by their flight made the blue fringes framing the left side of his face sway across his cheek, and stirred restless strands of golden hair. The book hit the back of the sofa behind him. Nathan heard it bounce.

“I hate this book!” Ben screamed. “I HATE YOU!”

Ben stalked back to his room, and slammed the door behind him.

Nathan sighed, and shook his head. That was probably for the best. He turned back in his chair, and let his back fall against it. His chin tipped down. His tired eyes fell to his desk. He reached toward the papers, then let his hand drop. He let out a soft, slow breath— then straightened in his chair.

Nathan stood smoothly. He pulled the papers back into order, and stacked the budget book on top of them. He dropped the crumpled paper into the wastebasket, then looked to the much–abused book against the couch. It wasn’t in his nature to dwell on such things. He crossed to the sofa, and picked it up. Nathan slid the book back into the empty space on his bookshelf. Back where it belonged. Where it had always belonged.

The phone rang. Nathan let it ring. Anyone with a valid reason to disturb him would keep trying. He had no patience for telemarketers and pollsters right now. He sat back down at the table.

Nathan opened his budget book, and continued writing. Attainable goals, he told himself. He had enough funds to get by for several years, now. Devon had seen to that before leaving. Still, it wasn’t his. He would account for every dime, and return it when he could. Sooner or later everything would need to be accounted for, and put back in its proper place. He couldn’t live like this forever. The fewer excuses he had left, the better for everyone. He rubbed his chest absently, as he made notations in the budget’s margins.

The phone stopped, then resumed ringing.

The ringing was clearly bothering Ben. A series of quick thumps against the wall clued Nathan in on that. From the secondary thumps after each impact, he guessed these were objects hurled at the division between the boy’s bedroom and the living room. Nathan got up and answered the phone.

“Yes?” He didn’t identify himself. If the caller needed him to, he’d hang up.

“Malavai,” an unfamiliar voice on the other end pleaded. The endearment grated on Nathan, and his left eyebrow twitched irritably. “Please,” the voice continued, “I need your help.”

“Do you actually know who you’re calling?” Nathan snapped.

“I’m desperate!” The caller clearly was. “An Ophan is running amok. I can’t get rid of it, and I can’t get it to stop stealing!”

Nathan pinched the bridge of his nose. He felt the first whispers of a headache coming on.

“Honestly?” Nathan cradled the phone between his ear and shoulder. He pulled his hair back into a rubber band’s grip, to get it out of his way. “I’d rather not. I’m supposed to go back to work in the morning, and it’s been a while. I’m running on fumes and I’m barely fit for conflict as it is. This is about the worst possible timing for—”

“Please, Malavai!” There it was again. Nathan’s jaw clenched briefly. “I’m desperate! I don’t know what else to do! This is the only job I can hold down and I’m about to lose it! Maybe even go to jail!”

That was entirely possible. There was only so much that could be covered up, after all. Someone would have to be held accountable for the theft. Someone more plausible than the sneaky little monster actually doing the thieving.

“Even if I don’t, you know Michael’s people are going to come down here! They’ll destroy everything, going after this Ophan, you know they will! They’ll come charging in the second they hear about it! Then what do I do?”

That option would most likely lead to jail a lot quicker. Michael’s people believed in their version of universal law, and enforced it by any means necessary. For people who claimed to respect the sanctity of the human world, they had a bad habit of wrecking any part of it that stood in their way.

“You’ve already asked Juno?”

“He’s the one who gave me this number!” Of course he did. Nathan pinched the bridge of his nose harder. It did little to ward against the ache now crowding the edges of his senses.

“And Devon’s still out of contact?”

“He’s not answering any of his numbers. The voicemails are full!” Escalating panic drove the young angel’s voice even higher. Nathan winced, and held the phone away from his ear. “If you won’t help me, I don’t know what I’ll do!”

“Fine, fine, fine.” Nathan fished for a pencil. Several of them were sticking up between pens in the cup beside the phone. “Give me the address.”

Nathan pulled his message book open. The sense of panic coming across the line didn’t ease. Even without sound, he could feel the younger angel’s tension. He knew he should say something to alleviate it.

“You owe me, kid.” That was the best Nathan could manage. A debt claimed was a service accepted.

The address filtered through in a calmer voice. Nathan scribbled it down, then stopped.

Nathan straightened. His eyes narrowed. There were eyes upon him. He turned, but there was nothing in the room.

The angel’s eyes lit, filling from edge to edge with his spirit’s light. Things of the material world faded to nothing, leaving the influence of spirit bright against an insubstantial background. His budget book glowed brightly. The Malakhrit scribble within was infused with his inner turmoil. The desk itself, the pen, even the garbage, all suffused with brilliant light.

Nathan’s gaze swept the room. There were splatters of Ben’s fury mixed in— charged, apparently, by a turbulent soul. There were faint glows along the couch. These were remnants of an afternoon Nathan spent healing what he could, and restoring strength to weakened muscles.

No trace, though, of an unseen visitor. Nathan relaxed. His vision cleared, returning his focus to the material world around him.

“— hello? Heio? Malavai?”

Nathan sighed, and returned his attention to the phone. “Repeat the street name,” he said flatly, and prepared to write it down. He wanted to get this over with. The lasagna had to be taken out before it burned. However urgent this little crisis was, it was damn well going to wait for him to get a little comfort out of the oven.

Nathan knew there were still eyes following him. He didn’t know that he couldn’t have found them, looking at the world beyond. These eyes were very much a part of the material world. Bright and clever, they followed the angel’s movements. They moved in swift ticks and little bobs. Tucked into the edge of the sill, a crow cocked its head. It paused its surveillance long enough to pick at a bit of dried skin on its foot, a spot far too itchy for any mortal creature to ignore.

Its attention span apparently taxed, the crow hopped off Nathan’s windowsill. Night–black wings opened and caught the air. They flapped briefly, then relaxed into a lazy glide. Glossy feathers quivered on an eager stream, bearing the crow higher into the night sky.

The evening breeze blew south, carrying the crow past a mixture of short and tall buildings. The crow ticked its head, briefly tempted by the clatter of a garbage can falling over far below.

The crow hit an updraft between two of the last big buildings. There were bugs caught in this updraft, coasting far higher than they would normally reach. A quick veer to correct its course, and the crow snapped up a big fat moth in flight. Gripping its treat, the crow spread its wings in triumph. This gesture caught upwelling air, and gained the bird some altitude.

The crow coasted out of temptation’s reach. Its head jerked with expert grace. This freed the moth briefly, so the crow’s beak could snip down. Sharp and deft, it severed dry tasteless wings from sweet juicy body. The crow downed its treat with a few quick twitches, cackling happily. It rode the warm updrafts over the canals, then began its descent.

Far below, the crow’s flight found its target. The crow clicked its beak, and tucked its wings back for speed. On the outskirts of town, several hills overlooked the canals, rising away from the treeline beyond. A small, dark shape on one of them stood out, attracting the bird’s attention.

The crow banked. It wheeled lazily until its bright eyes caught sight of a familiar face. Still and serious, beneath strands of gray and silver hair, that face looked up into the sky. That face was a friend. Pale eyes, nearly white from edge to edge, sought the bird out as well.

The crow shifted the angle of its wings, slowing itself against the wind. Its tail spread out, searching for stability. Its talons stretched forward, expecting this gesture to be understood. A slender arm lifted, soundlessly offered to the crow. A few broad scoops of its wings, and the bird settled into place.

Cruel talons curled carefully around the black–clad forearm. The crow bobbed a little, and let out a quick, “Caw, caw, caw, caw, caw!” Step by sideways step, the crow made its way up sliding fabric. Its beak nibbled at strands of gray hair. The gesture was accepted in silence. Pale eyes prompted the bird with a look.

“Fine, fine, fine,” the bird mimicked Nathan’s tone as heard through glass. “Give me the address.” The bird’s head bowed, then bobbed. It reached its friend’s shoulder, and nibbled at fine gray hair again. “You owe me, kid.”

The crow’s reward was a slow, subtle smile. Gently, pale fingers scratched the bird’s head. Black–nailed fingertips rubbed down to its neck and up under its beak. The crow hopped, its wings correcting its balance. Its talons dug harder into dark fabric, until the fabric stopped sliding. It settled next to its friend’s face, and rested there for now.

Part Two

Nathan pulled his camel coat a little tighter around him. Preparing for a spiritual fight always meant leaving his flesh just a little more vulnerable. There was something deeply wrong about the way he remained divided against himself. He spent as little time dwelling on that as possible.

He wasn’t ready for this. He’d done his best to abide by the normal process of healing, but he simply didn’t have the luxury. He’d had to force his tissues to mend in so many ways, and call them together to accept his burdens. Under that spiritual splint, natural healing struggled to catch up. Half–awake and turbulent, he spent tremendous energy just to keep himself from unraveling. The struggle left him perpetually weary. Unlike Ben, he couldn’t just rebuild himself from virtually nothing.

Ben. Nathan snuck a sideways glance at the boy. Ben was still fuming, and this sudden excursion wasn’t helping anything. He didn’t dare leave Ben alone when emotions ran too high. As much faith as he was putting in the boy’s resolve, Nathan knew better than to trust it completely.

Nathan’s boots scraped concrete, as he ascended the loading dock’s steps. The smell of motor oil mixed with something else, something subtler. Just the slightest whiff of sulphur, out of place here. Rotten eggs on the back of his tongue, and a bitter coating against his palate.

The door scraped open, interrupting the thought. A panicked museum guard looked up, then quickly lowered his soulless gaze. The guard drew his translucent wings into the world quickly, then lowered them. The guard was too young, too weak to fully manifest his wings on demand. Nathan caught glimpses, that was all. Bits of contour where their presence was strongest.

The guard’s feathers were a dull, dishwater white. White wings so rarely interested Nathan. He watched their outline sink, lowered so their middle joints sank well out of sight. Their upper knuckles were pointed outward, showing openness and welcome. Their flight pinions were no doubt tucked in and flattened against the floor behind the guard. A gesture of humility.

Nathan nodded slightly, and stepped past the younger angel. At least this little brother had manners. A little respect went a long way towards soothing Nathan’s irritation. He took a breath, and rubbed his face with an idle hand. This wasn’t something he’d normally mind, anyway. His irritation was mainly with the miserable timing of the younger angel’s request.

“Hai, Reikha,” the younger angel offered up his true name immediately. Nathan could not reciprocate, but the younger angel didn’t seem to expect it. “I’m so glad you’ve come, Malavai.”

There it was again. Malavai. Nathan’s left eyebrow ticked involuntarily. Again with the formal entreaty. No. More than that, at least to him.

Literally Malavai meant ‘most exalted brother.’ It was an expression that should be reserved, Nathan thought, for those who meant the most. Those few he could rely on, in total trust. That title belonged to someone whose faith sustained him, no matter how dark the world became.

Whatever the endearment meant to the young, Nathan couldn’t tell. It seemed to him that they uttered it too lightly, and to anyone who intimidated them. He rarely heard it directed at him, when nothing was needed of him. Even then, he only heard it from them here, in the living world, where many only perceived him vaguely. A cold echo rose up from his memory, and regarded the display of affection wryly. Outside of human life, not even all of his own company dared treat him with that familiarity.

Nathan closed his eyes a moment, trying to put a sudden surge of memory out of his mind. It wasn’t safe to think of his allies, nor to invoke them right now. Such things were never entirely one–way. Life was complicated enough. Better to keep his mind on the task at hand. He stepped past Reikha, and waited for the guard to collect himself.

“Tell me what you can about the problem,” Nathan prompted. He let his eyes lose their focus. Gradually his mind relaxed. His spirit’s vision flooded out, and peered past the living world. The storage room danced with an array of influences, some of them quite strong. There were graces here that Nathan recognized.

“At first it was every few weeks or so,” Reikha led Nathan through the storeroom, “Something would go missing. Items that weren’t very important to humanity, but mattered to us.”

“Relics,” Nathan prompted impatiently. “You’re keeping an angelic reliquary here.”

“Nothing significant to mankind,” Reikha answered defensively. As if that mattered. “Objects crafted and etched with our writing, things that belonged to us long ago. Hardly anything that looked like it mattered at all.” Reikha cleared his throat, and looked down. “Then a collection of Far East weapons arrived, all of them intricately glyphed.”

“Glyphed,” Nathan echoed, and sighed. He rubbed his forehead, then pinched the bridge of his nose sharply. “What sort of symbols? Logographs? Vocographs? Ergographs?” Reikha looked all the more miserable at the mention of each term. Nathan let the questioning drop.

“I— I’m not sure,” Reikha stammered. “I’m not as powerful as you, Malavai. I barely remember anything beyond this life. I couldn’t recognize any of it on sight.”

Remember? There were contextual Latin clues in the terms he used. Whatever the symbol did, that was the point— Nathan brushed off his irritation and walked on. His coat swished gently behind him, punctuated by Ben’s stomping gait. Thankfully, a bad mood meant a heavy step. Nathan concentrated on that for now, reassuring himself that the boy was still in control.

Reikha waited a worried moment, then continued. “Since our recent donations arrived, the thefts have escalated. It’s been every night this week. The Ishim who look after this place have exhausted their skill covering it up.” Reikha led him out into the museum, and they began pacing its halls.

For Nathan, the place was exhausting enough on its own. Concentration was getting more and more difficult. There were so many confused influences here. So many ancient whispers. Artifacts pulled at his spirit from all directions, tugging any remnant of clarity away from him.

“Just a moment,” Nathan said, then stopped in place. There was only one solution, for Nathan. Familiar scents distracted him, teasing at his memories. Plaintive calls tugged at him, drawing his defenses taut against dangers that had faded long ago. Fighting these influences would just splinter his focus. For Acceptance, the best move was to let them all in, and let them pass through unresisted.

It was the obvious choice, but a difficult one to make. Nathan took a deep breath, then let it out swiftly. In its wake, he opened his wings behind him. The museum’s jumbled voices poured through his spirit, stirring it closer to the surface. His humanity recoiled, and the warmth in his blood drained away. Only his hands and eyes still burned. The ice–blue glow in his eyes intensified, making the relics stand out brightly against their human–made counterparts.

“There’s hardly anything human here,” Nathan breathed the words, his voice nearly soundless. Beyond furniture and fixtures, nearly everything around him cried out for Nathan’s attention.

“Yes.” Reikha nodded proudly. “It’s an amazing collection.”

Amazing was not the word Nathan would have used. Most of the words Nathan felt like using would likely land hard on this guard’s tender ears.

“We’re running out of options,” Reikha explained. “Two of the Ishim have already tried to scapegoat themselves, but since the thefts keep happening it hasn’t done much good.” Reikha wrung his hands. “We’re about to lose our sanctuary, Malavai!”

“Yes, yes,” Nathan waved off the begging as quickly as he could. The safety of this sanctuary was the least of his concerns, now.

The spirit rising through Nathan was bitter about the idea of sanctuaries. The information his living mind lacked rose unbidden to meet it, and Nathan resisted it as little as anything else.

Ishim blended with humanity so well that if they took bodies they often lost any sense of themselves. They could mistake themselves for human. They could also deal with the pressures humanity applied, a lot better than any amqo or alqa could. They knew that, and empathized with their lost brethren.

From time to time the Ishim would create sanctuaries like this, largely free of human pressures, and invite others in to protect them. The ill–adapted Malakhim retreated to little sheltered places where all could live in peace as themselves. One foot in the human world, the rest sticking heads into distant clouds. Some sanctuaries encompassed entire towns. Some were like this— a place of employment or gathering, where the unexplained would be swept under the nearest rug neatly.

“This is a soap bubble,” Nathan murmured. “You had to know it would draw the wrong kind of attention.” He regarded Reikha with detached curiosity. “How long did you think it would last?”

To Nathan, the whole thing smacked of living in denial. He could adapt to it. He could accept anything, even a contradiction against his virtue like this. Still, even he had to admit that he was the last angel Reikha should have called.

“I’m sorry,” Reikha lowered his head again, a momentary gesture before he led them past another room. “It’s just, this is an important place for those of us whose names and memories are harder to reach.” He sighed. “I’m certain a Spoken Virtue wouldn’t…” Reikha stopped abruptly, and cast an embarrassed look to the elder angel. “I mean… of course I’m sure you are wise enough to understand, but…” The younger angel looked ashen, struggling for better words.

He needn’t have worried. Nathan took no offense. In fact, he was barely listening to Reikha’s babble. Portions of this museum were dedicated to the recreation of eras, and they’d clearly been recreated from personal experience. Little details that museums always got wrong stood out the most. The correct identification of hairpins, utensils and sex toys— even the colors painted as they were instead of how they’d faded over time— all these little touches struck Nathan to the core. They brought recollections so powerful they assaulted his living senses. Sights, smells, even sounds and touch. Nathan’s human mind struggled for some kind of grip, against a flood of disconnected lives.

“This place…” Nathan murmured. His voice split into layered harmonies. He swayed slightly, then stiffened his back to keep steady. His right hand flexed, subconsciously reaching out for the cane he’d abandoned months ago. He let it fall back against his coat.

“It’s wonderful,” Reikha beamed, visibly pleased to hear the elder angel’s voice. “So many sober up here. Being right in the middle of memories brings it all rushing back.”

Sober. It took Nathan a moment to recall the slang. Breaking out of the living dream. Forgetting the cloying delusion of human life, and remembering the self he would always truly be. It worked well enough. By that parlance, he’d first become ‘sober’ when he was just a child.

More or less.

Sobriety had not been kind.

“Let’s keep moving,” Nathan said. His voice refused to coalesce back into a single tone. He couldn’t fight it. He had to let it all pour through him, no matter how terrified his human mind became. Denial would rob him of his strength. Shrinking from reality left him weakened and vulnerable to—

Nathan froze. The next turn had brought them to a sprawling Roman diorama. These streets were lovingly crafted, just the same mix of gleaming stone and filthy edges that he remembered.

He knew this place. He’d lived in service, not far from here. There were the pots set out in front of tightly packed houses, filled partway with the offerings of well–hydrated citizens passing by. These were filled with wax, but he could still smell the pungent aroma of the real thing. It had been such a part of city life that it hadn’t even seemed unpleasant to him then. It mixed into sharp, bitter notes beneath earthy smoke.

Smoke. Acacia from the provinces, and a little bit of ash. That’s what the master liked. Ash burned hot and fast, keeping the acacia smouldering beneath turning spits. Scrap meats turned slowly in this smoke, by day and by night. The delicacies were fried for guests, often soaked in precious oil or animal fats. Fashion made false generosity out of prestige eating. The house’s refined tastes always left heaps of the heartiest meats for the servants, and for the poor besides. He’d liked that just fine. He’d so much rather eat the lark than its tongue.

“What a wretched thing to serve me,” That voice. It coursed through Nathan like electricity. “You do it just to be wicked, eating the tongue of a songbird.” Spoken in such elegant Malakhrit, so incongruous to the smile accompanying it. Foreign words passed off as a bawdy barbarian proverb. A false translation drew delighted laughter from the host.

Nathan rocked back on his heels. He drew a ragged breath. He blinked hard against the sting of acacia smoke that wasn’t there. His head swam. The chill fled him abruptly. Subtly bitter, the taste of pressed olives. That wouldn’t leave him. It had never really left him.

“Are you all right?”

“It’s nothing.” He shook his head, trying to shake off the memory in the process. Rejecting it brought back the museum’s chaos, but that couldn’t be helped. There was no room for that memory right now, or anything like it.

“Are you sure?” Reikha’s concern deepened. “You look shaken—”

“What makes you think it’s an Ophan doing the thieving?” Irritation touched Nathan’s voice. He struggled to calm himself down. “From what I’m seeing, this place is a relic hunter’s paradise.” His thoughts had been wandering since he stepped into this mess, and now they were outright rebelling. “Are you certain power–hungry monkeys aren’t slipping off with these during the hours you’re open to the public?”

“I take my job as a guard seriously,” Reikha’s shoulders squared. Ah. There were little hints of blue on those white wings, and these showed from a defensive stance. Not just defensive. The wing knuckles hiked up over Reikha’s shoulders, though briefly. “So do those who stand other shifts.”

“You misunderstand me.” Nathan’s wings rose and stretched, an involuntary response to his inner state meeting the moment’s challenge. Then he recovered himself, and his pinions settled back behind him. “I simply ask what compels you to eliminate the possibility.” Formality helped. Distance always helped. He began walking again, forcing Reikha to catch up. Moving forward might clear his mind.

“Nothing in a body could have gotten past us. I’m sure of it.” Reikha shook his head. “Besides, it spoke a Hell dialect. Even damned souls don’t manage to pick that up, no matter how long they spend in the abyss. What soldier of Hell could escape to Vuwn undetected but an Ophan?”

“It spoke to you?” That did get Nathan’s full attention. “Hmm. Brazen. Did anyone catch sight of it?”

“No,” Reikha shook his head sharply. “It spoke from everywhere at once. It used the air itself as its voice.” A handy trick. Also a common one. Even Nathan made use of it from time to time. “I only know a few words of the dialect it used. I’m pretty sure it was demanding access to the special exhibit I mentioned.” Reikha indicated another turn. “It’s right in here.”

They crossed into a vast room. A huge skylight above shed tinted moonlight on weapons that already glowed vibrantly in the angel’s vision. So dazzling were the presences in this room, it took a moment for Nathan to see past them. Slowly it dawned on him, what this room truly held.

This was a history of war. Not one war in particular, but all wars. Conflicts from all across time were gathered here to intermingle. Blooded weapons, each of them personal to someone who had rested life and spirit into their trust. Knives. Muskets. Crude hatchets. Rifles. Every bit of it infused with angelic trust. Even the bomber strung up near the other end of the room resonated a distant grace.

No. Not so distant, once the bomber caught Nathan’s eye. The bullet–riddled little Brewster, its battered fuselage studded by stubborn rivets, swayed gently on its chains. Even without wind to buoy its wings, it rode its suspended flight with timeless resolve. Its engines were forever stilled, but its determination would never be dimmed. Unfailing and unrelenting. Nathan couldn’t tear his eyes away until Reikha’s voice broke through the moment.

“It’s right beside us. To your right. We gave it a place of honor, since it was such a generous donation.”

Nathan turned. The cases along the near wall— the ones holding the ‘special collection’— were the only blank spots in the room. They resonated nothing, but they looked familiar enough. The glyphs were too intricate and too small for Nathan to see from here, but at least they weren’t resonating. It seemed ironic, somehow, that the focus of Reikha’s anxiety should be the least troublesome artifacts in the room.

Nathan sighed. He pinched the bridge of his nose as tension gathered there.

“All the worst weapons you have, gathered in one place,” Nathan let his hand fall back to his side. “Brilliant. I’d love to hear the thinking behind that.”

Silence fell in the wake of that. Reikha had no answer for him. Nathan looked up into the night sky above. Soft ticks of autumn rain against the skylight drew his attention. The conversation suffered an awkward pause. Ben was quiet, but a quick glance back to the doorway reassured Nathan. For now, the boy’s silence could be trusted.

Nathan looked back to Reikha. Impatiently, Nathan gestured toward the room. “Was any effort made to render them inert? Or even to ensure they echoed compatible energies?”

“Inert?” Reikha stammered, “The whole point of this place is to connect with ourselves, why would we—”

Nathan interrupted Reikha with a gesture. He accepted the answer silently with a backward flick of his wrist and fingers, away from an open palm. He approached the special collection, and eyed it carefully.

Of course they hadn’t taken precautions. They were young. Their senses were dulled by human life, drowned in it. They came here for these confused pulls, for echoes that called to their sleeping spirits. They’d compiled this mess for that purpose. This was meant to drag their spirits awake. The effect worked on Nathan, too. It hauled him and twisted him around inside his exhausted skull.

Only the very weak would want this at all. Nathan’s spirit would never need it. It surged to the surface unbidden, and could barely be quelled. Quelling himself was a mistake, but he made it anyway. The alternative was too much for him right now. Intoxicating memory still teased at the back of his mind, and refused to yield. Oil burnt low in the lamps… hot metal seething beneath layers of greasy soot… Nathan bit down on the thought. It left him off–balance. The harder he fought what welled up within, the more distracting the noise around him became.

“You should have gone to Devon before he left.” So many reasons for that, but Nathan picked the most obvious. “He’s better connected when it comes to Ophanim.” Nathan looked around for a good place to stow his coat. His blood was still running far too hot to keep it on. “I’ll do my best to scare it off, but chances are it’ll just come back. What you need is another Ophan to stake its claim here. A non–thieving one.”

“As I said, Devon is unreachable. You’re our only hope, Malavai—”

Kanqkeh dado ‘Malavai.’ Amq–ha Makhvet.” The correction hissed from Nathan in Malakhrit before his brain had time to register it. “That is what you have brought here.”

All the blood drained from Reikha’s face. His wings pulled back into the air, and lowered miserably behind him. He lowered his gaze, and mumbled apology. A quick grunt from Nathan stopped those words in the younger angel’s throat.

“That is what you invited.” Nathan waved a slender hand towards the room. “Surrounded by relics that awaken to my presence. Or don’t you feel it—” Nathan fixed his eyes on the younger angel, whose gray–blue eyes were still respectfully lowered. “Some of the weapons in this room know me.”

That brought Reikha’s eyes up quickly. Panic set in, but Nathan hoped it would bring understanding along for the ride.

“Be glad these new weapons are quiet.” Nathan pointed to one of the long Japanese swords in the special collection. He jabbed a slender finger at one of the symbols painted into the enamel lining the weapon’s scabbard. His own symbol had been worked into that one, and not in a way that felt friendly. “Some of them still thirst for my blood.” The weapon bore no echoes, but the symbol would make it effective enough against him for anyone to wield. “You need to be more careful about what you accept here, do you understand?”

“I’m so sorry!” Reikha’s insubstantial wings were sinking through the floor, forced down by his misery. “I… I didn’t notice. I would never….” His frightened eyes finally met Nathan’s, and tried to bare their sincerity.

Nathan turned away abruptly. He wasn’t interested in seeing that. He tossed his coat beneath the collection. The ticking of rain above grew louder, irritating Nathan even further. The quickest way to end his torment was to get this ridiculous chore done.

“Show me where you were when it spoke to you. Wherever it’s nesting in the building likely won’t be far from there.” Nathan waited for the younger angel to move.

“Just there, under the skylight.” Reikha kept his eyes down as he led the way.

He followed Reikha into the center of the room. That infernal rain! The museum’s acoustics were punishing. The noise in here was beginning to drive itself into Nathan’s very last bit of patience— shredding it beneath a rolling, grinding click that wouldn’t cease.

“Umm… Nathan…”

Ben’s voice was the very last thing Nathan wanted to hear right now. His jaw clenched, and he tried to concentrate on where Reikha stood. His eyes emptied, driving the material world away.

“Nathan, seriously…”

“Quiet,” Nathan snapped. He redoubled his focus, and let the unseen world in.

There were faint traces of brimstone everywhere. Nathan could see splashes of nefarious influence thrown over nearly every display in the room. Finding a trail amongst all this chaos was going to require all of his attention, and that grinding click was getting harder to ignore. The sound kept winding tighter and tighter. It sounded like a rollercoaster pulling itself to a peak, or a ballista’s cord being wound to firing tension. No matter how he tried, Nathan couldn’t shut it out.

So frustrating! The noise of physical things like rain on a skylight should have faded when the Makhvet’s senses took control. Instead this damned ticking drilled through Nathan’s thoughts, methodically destroying whatever focus he attained.

“Nathan, you should really—” Ben’s voice again.

“Give me a minute,” Nathan tried not to snap at the boy again. The boy meant well. He meant to help. Concentration was hard enough, though, without—

“Come on, Nathan!”

What little patience remained to Nathan shattered. His breath hissed between gritted teeth. He turned his head sharply, intending to silence the child. Instead, the sight between them silenced the angel.

A squat, grinning creature slowly condensed into being. Its metallic, segmented tongue lashed out. The gesture threw the stench of brimstone thickly around it. The creature’s head rotated clockwise, putting its abstract face nearly upside down. Each degree it turned drew that grinding click tighter. So unbearably loud, that sound.

Retina–searing flashes played across rings of silver blades that surrounded the creature’s sunken eyes. No, the blades served as false eyes. They moved independently, flicking and flashing over dark pits beneath. This creature’s true eyes were hidden, and the angel within Nathan had never really known where they were.

All breath went out of Nathan in a rush. The thing was familiar. Recognition made Nathan’s heart sink. Too late. He was already snared. He couldn’t look away from those flashing blades, couldn’t escape the trap clicking into the air around him. All the concentration he’d struggled to find now descended upon him, and fixed on the presence holding his attention. Every detail of this creature drilled itself into his mind, and held him perfectly still.

Nathan’s chest burned. He tried to pull breath into his lungs, but the air felt thick around him. The room darkened. Dizziness made him stagger. It was the first movement he’d managed since laying eyes on this creature. Movement freed his voice, just a little. Just enough.

“Aw, fuck.”

Part Three

“Aw, fuck.”

Two words were a victory, right now, but a pyrrhic one. They left Nathan without what little breath he had, and unable to draw another one. He stood utterly still. The light in his eyes strengthened even as their sight faded. His spirit ignored his body, and fixated on the kindred being before him.

Laughter erupted from the air all around them. It grated off the displays, and trembled the room’s arched windows. It played across glass cases, vibrating the panes against their frames. It bubbled out of the creature’s metallic tongue, and erupted from the pits that played at eyes. Each of those eyes opened into a blossom of steel blades, keen and sharp. They whirled, spinning crazily before collapsing back into place. The creature’s grin widened, needle–like teeth too thickly laid in its mouth to be counted. Its tongue lashed out, screeching and ringing as it brushed over their tips.

“Makhutya azghuza!” This victorious cackle piped its way through the Ophan’s scaled tongue. Nathan’s eyes narrowed at the guttural Hell dialect. His entire being was fixed on it, and he translated it easily. As the words reached his mind, a thick reek of sulphur coated his throat. ‘Fooled you!’

Nathan’s stance widened instinctively, a little more movement wrested away from the Ophan’s control. He couldn’t be held forever, and they both knew it. Bit by bit he pulled little whispers of air into his burning lungs.

The creature’s tone turned insincerely polite, and it shifted to Malakhrit. “Deis ari’qo tzim!” Despite all the niceties in address, the underlying meaning was painfully clear. ‘Now you’re gonna get it!’

Nathan was eyeball–deep in this trap, and he knew it. It had been slowly stealing his attention, hijacking his focus until it returned both in an irresistible flood. By blindly rejecting and denying the disruptive effect, Nathan had fallen far too deeply into the creature’s clutches to escape his unnatural fixation. He leaned into it instead. He threw everything he had into a desperate lunge at his captor.

A distant scream. Nathan was dimly aware of something happening around him. The sky split above him. No. The skylight. Somehow, the skylight exploded. He couldn’t look up. Enormous shards of glass struck all around him. He could barely register them in his peripheral vision. The Ophan was nearly in reach. Nathan struck, and managed to draw half a breath before something knocked it out of him.

He missed by a moment. The creature vanished before his strike connected. That freed Nathan, but left him disoriented. He croaked and groaned, fighting to draw in some air. A huge chunk of glass hit the marble beside his face. It left a gouge in the floor before shattering. Nathan closed his eyes, and felt something rip through his cheek. The weight on his back pressed him down, then sprang off.

Nathan pawed at the marble beneath him. He lifted himself off it with a shuddering gasp. Glass ground into his palms, but he was grateful for the sensation. Pain brought his shattered thoughts back together, as he pushed himself away from the floor. He managed to lift his head.

Bandaged feet hit marble in front of him, then a hand followed. They were gone too quickly for him to register much else— his attacker launched back into the air.

A desperate scramble, then, as Nathan tried to get to his feet. He got halfway upright before a small, dark shape struck his chest. It bore him all the way down on his back. His skull bounced off marble, leaving him dazed. He found himself staring up into pale, burning eyes. They stared back with undisguised hunger, a predatory look Nathan could never have forgotten.

“You’re slow.”

Recognition seared through Nathan. It set his blood on fire, and set his jaw tightly. His eyes felt like they were boiling in their sockets. His wings were pinned beneath him, but they struggled to hike forward.

“You’re small,” Nathan hissed.

The feet on his chest were a boy’s. They looked younger and smaller than Ben’s. Most of the weight pinning him, Nathan realized, was coming from wings hiked high above them. Night–black plumage blotted out the broken sky. A hunk of glass struck the backs of those wings, sending deep blue shimmers across their span. They imposed themselves on the physical world with deep and abiding menace.

Gray hair cascaded over black–clad shoulders, dangling in Nathan’s face. Punishing deprivation had robbed those strands of pigment. Precious iron seeped into dirty linen wraps instead, as blood soaked the torn cloth. An ill–fitting suit hung off a painfully thin frame. Thin, but strong. Stronger than it had any right to be.

“Samuel,” Nathan uttered the name hoarsely.

Samuel dipped his head, pushing it next to Nathan’s. He breathed deeply. A long, slow pull drew Nathan’s scent through Samuel’s nostrils. “Avaie. Heio.” Samuel purred.

The greeting soaked into Nathan’s senses and called for response. Samuel’s breath curled out, brushing Nathan’s icy skin. Burning leaves and bitter spices. Nathan sucked in a breath, and drew that scent deep into his chest. The familiar presence went straight to his head, and drove the sense out of it. His humanity fled the sensation, leaving the Makhvet alone in Nathan’s skull.

“It’s been too long,” Nathan heard himself saying. Fuck, were those the wrong words to use. His teeth ground audibly, as he fought for something better. What could he possibly say?

“I agree.” Samuel smiled, baring gleaming canines. He leaned in closer. The black–winged angel abandoned English for his peculiarly threaded Malakhrit. Nathan’s possessed mind barely heard the words, and only registered their meaning. “For six long years have I suffered, dear brother. Alone, but not alone.”

Nathan tried to speak, but Samuel gripped his jaw before it could open. Thin, strong fingers clamped around the bone, pressing hard into weary tendons. Samuel’s wings scooped above them, then settled into a predatory curve. A few chunks of glass still hung precariously from the shattered skylight. They sparkled, adorned with glistening droplets of autumn rain.

“I shall taste the traitor’s blood,” Samuel purred, “May it slake a thirst none other can satisfy.”

Nathan couldn’t struggle. He kept staring up into those night–black wings. White–winged angels were so dimmed by their darkness, so threatened by the inner monster which dwelt within them all. Nathan’s wings were contrasts of light and dark, allowing him to embrace elements of both without resistance so long as he never wandered too far into either extreme.

Nathan watched those feathers slick down, betraying Samuel’s vicious focus. They were the darkest wings Nathan could remember seeing. Darker tints than Nathan’s weren’t uncommon, but truly black–winged angels were incredibly rare. Samuel’s glory embraced the darkness so utterly. No, more than that. A shift of their position sent a fresh set of blue shimmers racing down Samuel’s feathers. Samuel reached so deep into darkness he drew light from the heart of it. Another shimmer drew Nathan’s attention, and held it as Samuel’s weight shifted above him. He couldn’t pull his eyes away.

The trap! Nathan wrenched beneath Samuel just in time. The next flash glinted off a small knife, which dug into the marble where Nathan’s shoulder had been. Nathan shuddered, the near miss sending chills through him. Remnants of the Ophan’s snare still clung to him, sending him into these moments of fascination. He had to escape that influence, and quickly. He needed every shred of wit that he could muster right now. This situation felt all too familiar, and nothing suggested to him that it ever ended well.

“Samuel,” Nathan invoked the name, putting every shred of memory he could muster behind it. “You know me! I’m not your enemy. Try to remember.”

“I bear memories that stretch beyond Time!” Samuel hissed. “I am filled to bursting with memory, brother! There has been room for little else since she woke me!”

The words hit Nathan, and knocked the breath out of him in an entirely different way. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he’d always known this might be happening. He’d allowed himself to hope— no, hope was an unfair word to use. He’d pulled a comfortably blinding assumption around himself and used it to hide from the truth. He’d told himself Samuel would still be sleeping, too young and unaware to be touched by her damage. He’d accepted that. He’d wanted to.

A slight shudder went through Samuel’s wings, a flutter that sent blue ripples down their length. A familiar tell. A split second to react before intent became a strike. Terror split through Nathan’s concentration, and moved him without thought.

Nathan fell backward as Samuel lunged. The knife whisked by his cheek, so close that it sliced a piece of blue fringe off his temple. Nathan grabbed Samuel’s wrists and twisted, pulling Samuel down with him. Thin bones strained beneath his touch. He held on with all his might. He fought desperately to crush those delicate joints.

Black wings flared, scooping the air angrily. Samuel twisted at the waist, using his slender legs to leverage himself out of Nathan’s grip. One wrist yielded up a satisfying snap before Nathan lost his hold. The knife hit marble and clattered. Nathan kicked it aside. Samuel hissed through his teeth, as Nathan rolled away from him.

Samuel clutched his wrist. His eyes ignited, burning with blue–white fire. Briefly Nathan felt Samuel’s spirit flood the air around them. Then all came rushing back in, drawn into the angel and re–absorbed. Samuel’s presence seemed to vanish, leaving no echo behind.

“You don’t usually learn to do that down here,” Nathan muttered in Malakhrit. The wrist was already mended. “You’re wide awake, aren’t you.” It wasn’t really a question. Just a desperate attempt to buy some time, to regroup enough so that Nathan could figure out what to do.

Samuel’s only answer was another lunge. Nathan pulled himself out of the glass. He didn’t get far. Samuel’s linen–bound feet struck Nathan’s back almost as soon as he got to his feet. Nathan let himself pitch forward with the blow, and scooped up a handful of glass fragments. They bit into his palm, as he seized them. He spun to face Samuel as he fell, and snapped, “Toa—”

The command went unfinished. Black wings fluttered. A thin hand struck at his throat, the other aimed at his chest. The first strike forced Nathan to drop everything. He had to divert its force, and save his voice. Glass clattered back to the floor. The second strike landed soundly. Samuel’s palm battered at the left side of Nathan’s chest. It struck with deadly precision, connecting just above Nathan’s heart.

Nathan felt the signals driving his pulse scatter. He shoved Samuel away, and clambered to his feet. He staggered backwards. His hands convulsed uselessly, clutching at his bruised ribs.

Samuel followed doggedly. Quick, sure strikes drove Nathan backwards. Nathan’s height made his throat a difficult target, but Samuel kept trying. Without the angel’s voice to communicate his power, Nathan could only rely on his ability to channel through this broken body, and its ability to withstand him. One lucky moment— no, not luck. Nathan knew it wouldn’t be luck. One critical misstep on Nathan’s part, and Samuel would have him helpless.

Blood bubbled in Nathan’s chest, its flow abruptly backwashing as the pump driving it began to flutter. The lower portion of his heart quivered. Its disorganized movements accomplished nothing. Pain radiated through Nathan’s chest, and dizziness followed swiftly after. Nathan’s breath stopped abruptly. He had to force his diaphragm to keep pumping against the pain, driving air in and out.

A small impulse, that’s all he needed. A little bit of electricity, easy enough to accomplish— but Samuel was already atop him again. He spent his precious seconds fending off hands that sought to crush his larynx. The blows came so swiftly, so furiously, that Nathan could barely keep up. He got out from under Samuel, but he had to keep moving. Samuel’s attacks were a relentless drive forcing him backwards across the room.

Samuel abandoned force for speed. Blows landed lighter, but Nathan couldn’t keep up the defense. It took conscious effort to keep any blood in his brain. Every strike interrupted that effort. Sense flooded away from him. He toppled.

A sharp blow to the back of his head woke Nathan abruptly. He clung to this glimmer of awareness with all his might, and blocked another blow to his throat. He’d fallen against a display case.

Delirious, Nathan turned his head aside. He couldn’t block another blow. His oxygen–starved body just couldn’t obey his demands. He could force a breath, or force a pulse, or protect himself— but doing all three at once was proving to be more than he could manage. He laid his cheek against cool glass. Cracks in the case spiderwebbed away from where he’d hit it. A thin film of laminate held the shards in place. It was beautiful, in its own way.

Samuel’s pale hand shoved past his face. Samuel drove that hand through the damaged film, tearing the delicate spiderweb apart. Through a fading red haze, Nathan watched slender fingers close around a glyphed sword. The special collection. Samuel grabbed a sword with no echoes in it, nothing left of its owner but a symbol crafted to… Nathan’s eyes widened even as they dimmed. Understanding set in far too late. No echoes.

The Japanese sword flashed. Blue glints etched its horrible design into metal, the ergograph that coiled around Nathan’s symbol. He felt the weapon’s thirst as soon as it pierced him. It bit deep into his shoulder, and deeper into the spirit beneath.

The Makhvet rose through this pain to protect Nathan. Its terrible cold burned in his veins. He abandoned the fight to sustain his body. His spirit infused the flesh directly, driving it as cruelly as a puppet’s strings drove its corpse. Bony fingers dug into Samuel’s shoulders. The Makhvet drove them hard into thin collarbones.

Samuel’s wings snapped taut above them. A shock ran through them both. The weapon’s thirst was nothing compared to what it fed. Samuel’s collarbone snapped, but neither of them noticed it. A deeper pain seized them together.

Loss drove a shudder through Nathan’s frame, a convulsion that shot through every nerve and trembled even the deepest tendons. Nathan’s heart squeezed like a fist, contracting all at once. Agony sent a fresh pulse of blood to his brain. His bones rattled against each other. His heart threw itself against his ribs like a panicked animal. Ashen skin flushed, and brought the strength back to Nathan’s limbs. He flung Samuel away from him, then collapsed.

Nathan’s blood still dripped from Samuel’s blade. Ice blue light flowed from that blood, seeping up along the katana’s edge. Samuel clung to the weapon, shaking violently. Nathan’s energies tinted the younger angel’s eyes, and polluted their glow. Nathan’s spirit keened from the loss, bringing with it a pain that his body couldn’t even interpret. He let out a heavy breath, laden with fresh–cut violet and embalming spices. He normally couldn’t smell that scent. Some errant part of him, still trapped by that blade, was reaching back to find it. In dizzying echoes, his spirit begged to be reclaimed.

Samuel was even more disoriented than Nathan was. He leaned on the katana. He slid a little, as the blade skipped across damaged marble. He staggered, and stared wide–mouthed at Nathan. He gripped the blade with both hands and lifted it. He gaped down at the blood still clinging to the weapon’s edge.

“You…” Samuel whispered. Samuel looked back to Nathan. Then his pale eyes sought Ben, and found the boy watching on the other end of the room. “Your choice…” Samuel’s fury built, charging the air around him. Gray hair lifted away from a face twisted by rage. “What is this, Makhvet? What have you done?”

Nathan struggled, and tried to take his feet. His damaged body was still numb, pins and needles reaching where conscious effort could not. His humanity cried out to him. It clung to him, threatening to drag him down. Nathan lifted his head slowly. He found those pale eyes, now edged with ice blue, and tried to meet them. Something more keenly felt than pain made that difficult to do.

“Samuel, please calm down…” Nathan’s clouded mind struggled to find words in Malakhrit. His body’s complaints escalated. Healing splinted together by his weakened spirit was unraveling itself, reopening old wounds within. He could feel blood slowly pooling around his lungs, pressing the strength from his breath. He wouldn’t last. Not like this.

Samuel’s thin lips curled in contempt. His linen–bound feet moved soundlessly over stone and glass. There was blood soaking through the linen, but it made no difference to the black–winged angel. He leapt into the air, his sword drawn back.

Nathan’s wounded spirit rose to meet the moment. The angel within forced its way through his flesh again, overtaking his unresponsive frame. Nathan succumbed to it. He pitched forward and away from the weapons display. Samuel whisked past him, moving too quickly for an unexpected correction.

Intense heat flooded from Nathan’s chest into his fingertips, followed by unbearable cold that gripped his still–unsteady heart. He gave over to the pain, to the traps and his fixations. He gave over to the losses he’d suffered, to the wounds and the fear. Nathan gave up the last of his conceits, and surrendered completely.

Fascination faded. Doubt, struggle, and fear passed through the angel of Acceptance, all of it unresisted. Everything fell away, leaving only resolve. Every nerve lit, sending pain streaking through his broken body. Nathan stopped running. Every awakened synapse strained under the burden of the angel’s presence. Nathan’s bones trembled beneath his muscles, tendons and ligaments rattling them in their joints. He drew himself to his full height, and let his arms fall to his sides.

Samuel’s wings snapped forward. They sent the air thumping across the room, and made Nathan’s weakened heart wobble in his chest. Samuel gripped his sword tighter, and gathered himself for another lunge.

Nathan accepted that, too. He made no effort to defend himself. His head tipped back, exposing his neck. His chest lifted. The tightness there pulled all the way to his back. Muscles strained along his shoulderblades and spine, trying to lift phantom bone. A deepening ache spread into the world around him. Pure yearning pulled his rich brown wings into undeniable existence.

Samuel closed the distance. Glass embedded itself in his linen wrappings, deepening their crimson tint. Samuel picked up speed, then launched himself into the air. He lifted the sword, arcing it gracefully in flight. Blue shimmers raced down night–black feathers, as he brought the weapon down.

Nathan’s feathers slicked down against one another, sharpening their contours. His wings snapped open, then hammered at the air. A terrified wind rushed forward, fleeing the angel’s presence.

The sudden burst of force buffeted Samuel, and drove him backward. Black wings dipped slightly behind the child as Samuel landed short of his target. His katana bit into marble, and chipped. Samuel fell to one knee.

“Have you seen this, then, little brother?” the angel of Acceptance muttered darkly. His voice was finally his own, layered in rich harmonies. He fell comfortably into archaic Malakhrit phrasing. The sounds were satisfying. A gentle upward curve teased at his thin lips. The heat in his fingertips intensified. Energy and will gathered there, readying for a strike.

“Now it becomes interesting,” Samuel’s smile was chilling. “I could only see this far.”

Nathan’s head cocked to the side, curiosity briefly overtaking his features. “That’s unusual,” he said softly, then his wings hunched forward. “I’ll warn you once only. Stay your hand, and I will explain myself.”

“Let your blood speak for you!” Samuel threw himself forward again. He lunged at Nathan with complete abandon, the sword aimed straight towards Nathan’s burdened ribs.

This time Nathan pitched forward to meet the strike. Nathan’s fingers caught Samuel’s wrist, and wrenched the sword aside. His other hand struck soundly beneath the boy’s diaphragm, carrying bone–crushing will through the blow. Both hands worked together, creating enough leverage to fling Samuel over him and away.

Samuel twisted midair. He whipped his spine like a cat’s. The gesture worked with his wings, and together they adjusted his flight. Samuel landed on his feet. He coughed, struggling to regain his breath. He gathered himself, and threw himself at Nathan again. The sword was already sweeping up, trying to catch Nathan before the elder angel could react.

Nathan fell away from Samuel’s attacks. The sword followed his path. He moved with the black–winged angel in perfect reflection of Samuel’s advance. He assessed his chances silently, as he fell into Samuel’s rhythms.

His vessel was broken, and struggling. This was difficult, but nothing he couldn’t overcome. His body served well enough, for now. Samuel was faster than he, especially in his current condition. Samuel was smaller too, and unable to take full advantage of his speed.

They found each other’s shortcomings swiftly, as near misses took Nathan closer and closer to another disastrous loss. Samuel was a quick learner, but there was little for him to learn.

Nathan abandoned any search for weaknesses. He would not form a plan. He understood this angel far too well for that. He mirrored Samuel’s strategies as they shifted, keeping himself just beyond the younger angel’s reach. Samuel’s virtue could follow likely outcomes and find the crucial moments in which to strike. Nathan’s only defense was to be without future— to be fully in the moment. He gave Samuel nothing to predict.

Samuel drove him across the weapons displays, but Nathan knew better than to grab any of them. Every one of these items carried with it a twist of fate. Anything as predictable as a weapon would lead to his immediate defeat. Each foretold a future unfolding from the act of arming himself. Whatever Samuel might have said, Nathan had no way of knowing just what the black–winged angel really saw.

They whirled, and moved as one. The younger angel’s blade passed closer and closer to Nathan’s skin. For now Samuel could not touch him, but Nathan’s refuge came at a price. By reacting to Samuel, he let the younger angel direct him. Sooner or later that would fall into a predictable outcome as well.

He’d done this dance with Samuel before, and borne familiar wounds from the inevitable end. Memory sang to him of defeat after defeat at this angel’s hand. He was stronger than Samuel, more experienced, and a great deal smarter— but he would lose. Samuel had the advantage. Eventually Nathan would fall prey to the younger angel’s virtue, unless… his eyes drifted slightly, but he pulled them back to his foe.

Something unexpected had to happen, and soon.

Part Four

“Aw, fuck.”

It was about time. Ben was used to Nathan ignoring him, especially when they were out on some kind of mission. Tonight, though, he’d been taking being ignored quietly— and Nathan had been taking it way too far.

“What is it?” Ben asked.

Nathan didn’t answer. He just stared at the creature.

“It’s the thief!” Reikha paled. The more solid the creature became, the more color drained out of the guard’s face. Reikha’s glowing eyes settled on Ben’s face, and worry filled them. “You’re not safe here, son of…” Something stopped him. “Wait. What are you?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ben sighed. He didn’t feel like explaining himself right now. “This isn’t the first Ophan I’ve seen.”

Reikha’s confusion deepened, but he nodded. They both looked expectantly to Nathan. Nathan was still holding rock–still. The Ophan’s head kept twisting, and that clicking sound it made was getting unbearable.

“What’s the problem?” Ben demanded. “Come on, do something!” Maybe Nathan hadn’t been ignoring him. Maybe he really had just been spacing out. Maybe something was really wrong. Worry swallowed petulance whole, and spit Ben out scared.

A deafening noise erupted all around them. Ben covered his ears, but it didn’t help. The sound was coming from everywhere, including the air trapped in his ears. It broke into staccato wobbles that made the hairs on Ben’s neck stand straight against his skin. Those sounds made every cell in his body want to flee, an instinctual terror that pulled his muscles taut.

“Makhutya azghuza!”

Ben had never heard speech like that before. It was awful. The sound twisted and shattered, bringing with it the stink of brimstone. It hissed and sizzled against his eardrums, and made his head feel like it was burning. Ben shrank away from the Ophan, and Reikha did too. Concerned glances from the guard were strangely comforting, as the echoes of that cry faded.

“Deis ari’qo tzim!”

Those words were strangely sweet. They soothed away the pain in Ben’s ears, and dispelled the thick atmosphere around the museum. If only Ben didn’t know what they meant.

“You’ll suffer quick!”

The creature’s clicking accelerated. It crouched. To Ben it looked like the thing was getting ready to spring. Why wasn’t Nathan reacting? The angel wasn’t even blinking. The angel’s washed–out skin looked bone white now, and even the angel’s lips were chalky. The creature snapped bright metal blades along its body and flank, and Ben’s confusion became terror. He cupped his hands around his mouth.

“Nathan, do something!”

Finally Nathan moved. The angel lurched forward. Ben breathed a sigh of relief, but it stopped halfway out of him. A terrible cracking sound cut through the creature’s clicks.

It all happened in less than a second. Reikha looked up before he did. Blue–white wings flared out, and curled defensively over the guard. Ben staggered back a few steps. He couldn’t see any cracks, but the sound was definitely coming from that massive skylight up above. Thick stained glass vibrated in its iron framing, then began popping out of it. Some of it broke on the way down, splitting into wicked shards. They plummeted towards the marble floor. Nathan’s lunge carried him right into their path.

Ben screamed. He threw his hands forward, but panic stole any strength he had from him. There just wasn’t time. He couldn’t summon up any of his tricks that quickly!

Something hit Ben, and he slid backwards. Everything was a gray jumble, so he couldn’t sort out what happened at first. He reached out instinctively, and seized big handfuls of the guard’s gray uniform. The guard’s arms closed around him. His big white wings sheltered them both. Delicate floral scents mixed with some kind of herbal musk, and made Ben dizzy all over again.

“No!” Ben shrieked. “Help him! Not me!” Ben squirmed away from the guard. Getting free made his disorientation ease.

Something dropped from the skylight, amid massive chunks of glass. Too quick to see, at first. Just a blur of black and gray. Then massive black wings scooped out above it, and slowed it enough for Ben to get a look.

An angel. Short and slender, clad in a dark suit. This small angel landed on Nathan’s back, pinning Nathan to the floor. Black wings shoved chunks of glass aside, sheltering them both. One pale palm steadied the new angel, pressed between Nathan’s shoulders as the angel sank to one knee.

Why was this so familiar? Ben was pretty sure he’d never seen this angel before. He felt like he’d remember that long gray hair, swishing across nearly colorless eyes. Those dirty wraps on its hands and feet, those itched at Ben’s brain. They looked like they had dried blood on them, but they were too ragged and haphazard to be real bandages. He wouldn’t just forget something like that.

The black–winged angel coiled, and sprang up off Nathan’s back. Nathan finally started moving again, and tried to pick himself up off the floor. There was glass everywhere. Ben couldn’t watch Nathan cut his palms up. His own hands hurt just thinking about it. He watched the newcomer instead. There it was again, that funny way the angel landed. He carried the impact all the way down, steadying himself with one hand.

Ben had seen a sort of move like that in superhero movies, but this was more practical. Instead of striking a pose, the angel melted all the way down into a low crouch. It looked like he was turning his whole body into a tightly packed spring, like he was storing up the energy of the fall that way. It let the angel launch right back up again, and carry all that force into Nathan’s chest.

Nathan couldn’t even stand up before the angel’s lunge hit him, and knocked him back down to the floor. Ben flinched away. Just the sound of all that glass crunching made Ben ache all the way to his teeth. The hollow crack of Nathan’s skull bouncing off marble didn’t help either.

“You’re slow.”

The angel’s voice was silky. Like so many angels, he didn’t speak in just one voice, but a few of them layered in subtle harmonies. Slender shoulders hunched forward, and gray hair hid his face from view.

Nathan’s whole body stiffened. Ben saw bits of brown wings struggling beneath Nathan, fading in and out of reality.

“You’re small,” Nathan hissed.

Silence fell. Reikha took the opportunity to approach Ben again. Ben shot Reikha a look that stopped an outstretched hand from landing on his shoulder. Then he looked back to the angels on the floor. He realized he was holding his breath, and let it out in a sigh.

“Samuel.” Nathan’s voice sounded like it had been scraped raw.

Samuel’s head dipped down next to Nathan’s. Samuel sniffed Nathan’s neck like a weirdo, and then lifted his head to look down at Nathan again. “Avaie. Heio.” He sounded so pleased with himself. That was the most upsetting thing of all.

“It’s been too long.” Nathan’s expression didn’t make that seem sincere. His jaw was clenched so tight his teeth were grinding. It sounded like his teeth were cracking. Ben hated that sound.

“I agree,” Samuel replied, and leaned in even closer. His speech shifted to Malakhrit, but Ben could barely follow it. The words sounded smushed together, and Ben couldn’t fully grasp what they meant. “Sedishadiari’q ha. Yabaniqeh itiyabaniqkeh.”

Nathan tried to answer. Samuel grabbed Nathan’s jaw, and held it tightly enough to silence any reply.

“Saqiya iruwasamiehran chateimaiaha,” Samuel sounded so calm, but every syllable of those words felt awful to Ben. “Adqumuquemwo esilehe.”

Nathan didn’t say anything back. He just stared up into those dark wings. He didn’t even fight the fingers holding his jaw shut. Ben’s mind raced, trying hard to explain it. Nothing about this made sense. Nothing at all.

Samuel. That name explained why the angel felt familiar. Ben knew a little about this angel, through the memories Nathan and Ryaden shared with him. Samuel fought on the side of the Gate, though. He was Nathan’s friend. Ben couldn’t piece together what was going on. If this was a friend, why did Ben feel so scared? Why was there so much hatred in that silken voice, and so much anger trembling in those glossy black wings?

Those wings! They hunched forward, and Samuel shifted his position. Ben saw something glinting in Samuel’s right hand.

Nathan saw it too. He whipped his head aside just in time. Samuel’s knife dug into the soft marble floor, leaving a nasty scratch behind. A brief struggle broke the two apart. Nathan staggered back, panting heavily.

“Samuel,” Nathan invoked the angel, “Hau deish kitoe!”

Nathan’s Malakhrit was much easier to piece together. “Me, you know!” There was so much pleading in those words, though. Nathan had already said more, but Ben couldn’t translate fast enough to follow. He was missing something, even in the words he could recognize. The frustration was hard for him to deal with. It made him feel shut out all over again.

“Come away, child,” Reikha urged. “We mustn’t get in the way of this.” He clearly understood more than Ben did, but even Reikha looked confused.

“Tell me what’s happening!” Ben begged. “They’re talking too quickly for me to understand!”

“It’s not for us to know,” Reikha shook his head, and grabbed Ben by the wrist. “This must remain between them.” He looked embarrassed even to be asked.

A familiar, crunching snap sent goosebumps racing up Ben’s skin. He turned his head just in time to see Samuel twist an arm out of Nathan’s grip. They were down on the floor again. The knife clattered away as they struggled. Ben saw Nathan kick it under a display case, and then struggle to get free.

Samuel hissed. Nathan rolled away, and got to his knees. He seemed too tired and stiff to get up yet.

Samuel’s wings flared, and his eyes burned. Samuel’s wrist swelled up like a balloon. For a moment it was angry red, then it began to turn a nasty purple. Something was definitely broken. Samuel clutched at it. His breathing was quick and shallow.

Ben yanked his hand free, and rubbed his own wrist sympathetically. He’d felt that crushing grip, too. Reikha’s pulling was nothing compared to what Nathan had done to Ben.

Nathan said something else in Malakhrit, but most of the words were unfamiliar. Ben caught “you don’t” in all of that sentence, and it told him nothing. He looked to Reikha, but Reikha just shot him a frightened look.

The whole thing was so unfair. This stupid angel could understand what was going on, not that he understood anything meaningful. All Ben needed were the words, but he wasn’t smart enough or fast enough to follow what they were saying. After over a year of finally feeling like he had a grasp on his world, he was back on the outside of it looking in.

Samuel lunged again. Nathan turned to run away, but he didn’t get far. Samuel hit his back, and started bearing him down again.

Nathan scooped up some glass on the way down. He flipped over before he hit the ground, and Ben’s heart leapt. Nathan had a trick ready! “Toa—” To split. Nathan didn’t have time to turn the word into a command. Samuel was too fast. Nathan dropped the glass, and tried to stop Samuel’s relentless attacks. One got through, and hammered Nathan’s chest.

Anger rose up in Ben’s throat, hot and bitter. He turned to Reikha. “What aren’t you telling me?” Ben demanded. “What did they say? I have a right to know! I’m his friend too!”

“Friend?” Reikha looked genuinely shocked at the idea. “The man you know as Nathan may be your friend, child, but that man is very far away right now. What remains is not something you can befriend.” Was that pity in the guard’s expression? That angered Ben more than anything. “You can’t be expected to understand, but you must come to safety with me.”

“You don’t know what I understand!” Ben snapped. “Let me go!”

“Child,” Reikha soothed, “You—”

“Hai Ben!” Ben snapped. His accent and emphasis were perfect. That closed Reikha’s mouth abruptly. “I’m nobody’s child. Not anymore!”

“Ben,” Reikha lowered his eyes, and his wings dipped respectfully. “The man you know as Nathan is just a vessel. A conduit for a spirit beyond your understanding. Beyond mine.” Reikha grabbed for Ben’s arm again. “Look at those wings! Do you understand that too, Ben? The Death itself fights a creature that glories in pure darkness. All we can do now is get in the way.”

“Don’t call him that!” Ben snapped. “You don’t know anything!” Tears stung Ben’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Reikha whispered. “I will never know the man you call Nathan. I barely know my elder brother, trapped inside him. What I do know is that no one is safe lingering where he fights. He fights—”

“Without hesitation, without remorse, blah blah blah,” Ben brushed off the familiar speech. “I know. I’ve heard it. I told you. I know him. I know how to stay out of his way.”

The fight turned abruptly, and headed towards them. Between all the wings and the swiftness of their movements, Ben couldn’t follow what Nathan and Samuel were doing. It just blurred into one confused flurry of violence. All he knew was that Samuel was driving Nathan back towards the entrance.

Reikha finally abandoned the effort to get Ben to safety. With a final look at Ben, he ducked out of the room. He hovered nearby, watching from the hallway.

Ben was already running in the opposite direction by the time Reikha fled. He turned as soon as he thought he had gotten enough distance, though. He was afraid to take his eyes off Nathan for too long. He edged along the pistol display cases, until he bumped up against a diorama. Samuel just kept driving Nathan towards the hall.

Nathan looked bad. His lips had gone from chalky to blue. His eyes were still bright, and that was a comfort. His face, though— it looked slack and weak. Ben worried about all those warning signs. It had been months since he’d felt the need to check for them, but they still haunted the back of his mind. FAST. Face. Arms. Speech. Time.

Ben bit his lip hard. Nathan was still fighting back. Was Nathan’s fighting lopsided, or was that just how much Ben feared seeing those signs? Somehow the fact that he’d never actually seen those all–important signs made Ben worry he was seeing them everywhere.

Suddenly Nathan crumpled. He fell backwards, fetching up against the special collection. His head hit the case hard enough to put cracks in the glass. Ben’s heart stopped. Nathan moved again, but only to turn his head. He was still sinking down slowly, and Samuel was about to punch him again.

He wasn’t ready for this, Ben thought. His fists clenched at his sides. It’s not fair. He wasn’t done healing. Why did this have to happen now?

Samuel’s fist slammed down towards Nathan’s face. Ben flinched away, and instantly hated himself for doing it. He made himself look. The bloody mess Ben expected hadn’t happened. Samuel’s hand had actually gone through the display case instead of Nathan’s face.

The special collection! Ben’s heart leapt. That’s all he was after, wasn’t it? The Ophan and Samuel were probably working together. It was probably just stealing the weapons for him. “Don’t be so stubborn, Nathan!” Ben yelled. “Just let him have the stupid swords! They’re probably his anyway!”

Samuel grabbed one of the Japanese swords, and yanked it free of the display. For a split second Ben felt relief. Now that Samuel had what he wanted, the fight would probably end. Relief curdled into horror as Nathan’s eyes widened. Just like that, the sword plunged down again. Samuel drove it deep into Nathan’s shoulder. Blood bubbled around sharp metal, and streaks of ice blue ran up to Samuel’s fingertips.

That was it. Ben was done being a bystander. He started running towards Nathan. He got all of two steps before the look on Nathan’s face stopped him. All the humanity, all the life winked out of it. What replaced it scared Ben more than anything else ever could.

Cold and inhuman, the Makhvet stared out of Nathan’s darkened eyes. Nathan’s shoulders jerked up. Ben hated that strange, jerky movement— it reminded him too much of what a puppet like him went through when someone pulled on its strings. Nathan’s fingers dug cruelly into Samuel’s shoulders, until Ben heard bones snapping. They kept on digging.

It had been years, but Ben recognized the twisted viciousness in Nathan’s expression. Ben staggered back, until he bumped into the diorama again. Little trees came tumbling off its edge, and rained down around Ben’s feet. The last time he saw that grimace, an old man got his belly skinned. Icy horror sat like battery acid in Ben’s stomach. He pulled his arms around his waist, and gritted his teeth.

Samuel’s black wings snapped. They pulled taut, delicate skin stretched so far that contours of thin bone stood out beneath his feathers. They struggled to curl around Samuel’s body, but couldn’t seem to fold in. Something was hurting Samuel terribly.

Ben looked between the combatants. Something was hurting them both. Viciousness lost its hold on Nathan’s features, and tension replaced it. Both angels shuddered, shaking like it was a hundred degrees below zero.

It wasn’t cold in here at all. The air was charged, so much that it was practically boiling between them. It had been getting hotter and hotter in the museum ever since the fight began. Ben looked around in a panic, trying to understand what was going on.

When he looked back, all the color had rushed back into Nathan’s skin. Flushed and breathing heavy, Nathan shoved Samuel hard enough to yank the sword out of his shoulder too. Nathan tossed Samuel away like a rag doll, and collapsed against the broken cabinet. His eyes were still molten, and filled from edge to edge with inhuman fire. Ben was still too scared to approach Nathan, when the angel was like that. When the spirit took over completely, Ben wasn’t sure Nathan would see him at all.

Ben coughed past a sick–sweet smell that choked him. He had nightmares about that smell. Flowers mixed with something else, something corrupted and dark. It was just a memory, he told himself. Just a terrible memory.

He forced his eyes open, and looked to Nathan. This was the reality, he told himself. That night could fade into horrible dreams. The air was getting thick with the scent of cut violets, burdened with strange bitter spices. Not as bad as the memory he feared, but still a bad sign. Ben only smelled those spices this strongly when the spirit inside Nathan was really hurt. He stared at the blood dripping down Samuel’s sword.

“Be glad these new weapons are quiet. Some of them still thirst for my blood.” That’s what Nathan had said to Reikha, when he looked at the special collection. Panic seized Ben, and he gripped the diorama behind him. The sword wasn’t just hurting Nathan! It was hurting the angel inside Nathan even more!

Samuel looked as shocked as Ben felt. His mouth fell wide as he staggered, and gaped at Nathan. He turned his pale eyes down to the sword, and gripped it with both hands.

“Deis…” Samuel breathed. Suddenly those bright burning eyes turned on Ben. “You…” Ben shivered. Did Samuel mean him? “Saio–ado…” No. That meant, “This choice of yours…” Samuel had to be talking about Nathan. Ben hadn’t made a choice since coming in here. A chill went through Ben, and shook him right down to his bones.

Ben shrank away from the angel’s stare. Samuel’s grip on his sword tightened, and Ben could see strands of gray hair floating past those shimmering wings. “Makhvet, nuw’hi lisve? Teq adoave lisio?” Ben was too scared to try translating. The shock in Samuel’s expression was giving way to something else, a kind of turmoil Ben couldn’t interpret. Those wings were starting to hunch over Samuel’s shoulders, straining towards Ben. That, Ben could interpret without any words at all.

“Samuel,” Nathan struggled to rise. Ben bit the inside of his lip, and fought the fear that just kept building behind his thoughts. “Esalmeo…” Nathan said the word so brokenly that Ben barely recognized it. “Please, be calm…”

That turned Samuel back in Nathan’s direction. Those black wings hiked high over Samuel’s shoulders, their upper knuckles straining forward. Samuel broke into a run, and that awful sword drew back. Ben looked to Nathan, desperate for some sort of hope.

Nathan lurched forward, then threw his head back. His chest lifted, pulling him to his full height. His wings furled out, rich and brilliant as they met the world. The scent of violets overtook those bitter spices, and calm settled into Ben’s heart. Ben sagged against the diorama. A sigh of relief escaped him, taking the last of his tension with it.

Samuel’s wings snapped. Air rushed away from them, sending a ripple through the room. It hit Ben, but it didn’t scare him. Nathan had that rare kind of calm Ben hadn’t seen since Yusom’s gamble brought it out of him. Those broad, strong wings looked more comforting than Ben could remember them ever being. He just wanted to reach out and touch those feathers. He knew that if he could, everything would be OK. He sank down against the diorama table, and pulled his arms around his knees.

Samuel attacked. Nathan’s feathers slicked down flat. His wings slammed against the air. This shockwave ran through the room much faster than Samuel’s, and caught Ben off–guard. It shoved Ben back against the diorama. The back of Ben’s head smacked hard into solid oak, and left his senses fading. Dizziness became sleepiness, and the museum began to fade away.

You can’t sleep now.

That silvery, beautiful voice grated its way up Ben’s nerves. It exploded in painful sparks at the back of his skull. Ben knew better by now than to answer it. He clenched his jaw tightly, and tried not to shake. It was useless. Every syllable made his bones rattle like they were trying to escape. He wished he could escape, right now.

The angels swept past him, a flurry of wings and flashing steel. They were focused on each other now, neither of them glancing in Ben’s direction. That was kind of a relief. They moved together, Ben could see that now. Samuel’s blade was getting closer and closer, barely missing as Nathan retreated. All these weapons, and Nathan wouldn’t grab any. He just kept whipping his body out of harm’s way.

“This is pointless.” Nathan’s words were in Malakhrit, but the spirit was translating them. Ben bit down on the bitterness of getting his wish this way. He hadn’t asked for it, but he knew he’d wanted it. He’d wanted so desperately to know what was going on. “Stop this so I can explain what you’ve seen.”

Samuel shrieked. His voice split into enraged harmonies. He thrust the katana with all his might, aiming it at Nathan’s midsection. Nathan fell back against the broken display case, then let himself drop all the way to the floor. Samuel’s sword sank into the display and wedged there.

The clang made Ben flinch. His eyes closed. Ben heard what sounded like a firecracker going off, then the whine of singing metal. Surprise peeled Ben’s eyes open again. A piece of the katana came spinning into view, and fetched up against Ben’s sneaker. He could see a broken symbol carved into it, one that reminded him of Nathan’s. He picked it up, then quickly dropped it. The broken symbol wept fat drops of blood.

Nathan was already running past Ben, heading for the other side of the room. Samuel tossed what remained of his broken sword aside. He yanked two shorter swords from their mountings, and let their tips fall against the marble floor.

Samuel raced after Nathan. The blades sang as they followed along behind. Their metallic whine reached a peak as Samuel swept them off the floor. He launched into the air, bringing the blades down across his body. Nathan spun between them. One whisked by his shoulder. The other sliced empty air.

Nathan just kept falling back, ducking and sidestepping Samuel’s attacks. Nathan’s wings confused his movements, moving incongruously with his dodges. Samuel was still attacking, but Ben couldn’t focus on that. Those wings always drew Ben’s eye irresistibly. They blended from deep mahogany on their backs to light caramel where the strongest bones lifted them, with bright near–white bands marking the largest joints and the biggest knuckles. Underneath, however, the feathers were a mix of warm tan and light sandy brown, with shimmers that looked golden from the right angles. From beneath the largest muscles to the angel’s back, the inner side of those wings were lined with soft, cream–colored down— down that was nearly invisible right now, tucked beneath taut feathers and pulled tight by tense muscle.

The most eye–catching feature of those wings slipped in and out of Ben’s view as the angel spun— two sets of three blue spots on the top and bottom extremes, lining the leading edge of each wing. They were small but striking, fading from deep cobalt in the outer rings to vivid turquoise at their centers. They expanded and contracted as Nathan’s muscles pulled beneath them, seeming closer and further away than they truly were.

In motion this made for a dizzying effect, one that Ben couldn’t watch for long. The faster Nathan moved the more distracting the motion of those spots became. They traced quick arcs in the air as Nathan’s wings flicked, exaggerating the motions the wings made before Nathan moved.

Samuel wasn’t trying to hurt Nathan’s wings, though. He was focused on Nathan’s human body. Nathan’s legs were thin, and the loose khakis he wore flared around his calves. Strikes at his legs did little but graze empty fabric. Nathan’s height and his nimble movements kept his body mostly out of reach. It seemed like that was all he was doing. Suddenly Nathan threw himself forward, and threw his palms at Samuel’s chest.

Samuel’s wings were hunched over his shoulders. That sleek posture communicated nothing but deadly focus. Then they flared defensively, when Nathan’s strike connected. Samuel skidded away from Nathan, putting a sizable distance between them. Those deep black wings strained forward, and blue shimmers ran down their length.

The ringing started in Ben’s ears again. Ben covered them, but he couldn’t shut out the sound. Samuel carried his swords with their points down and dragging behind him. They vibrated against the marble floor, leaving scratches in their wake. Their scraping turned to singing as he picked up speed. Two larger steps, and Samuel jumped into the air. His blades swept up and across his body before slicing down.

Nathan was already slipping beneath the strikes, sliding on his hip. He coasted beneath the other angel’s leap. Samuel hit the ground where Nathan had been, and skidded again. Blood–soaked bandages left streaks across the scuffed–up floor.

Nathan rolled to his feet and started running. He didn’t even look back. Ben could barely see anything of the Nathan he knew in that inhumanly calm expression. Ben recognized the look in those eyes, though. He’d felt the endless calm behind that look, and how everything else just fell away. He shrank away from it every time it spun into view.

Nathan almost reached the room’s entrance. For a horrifying moment, Ben thought the angel was leaving without him. Then Nathan adjusted his course, and Ben saw what Nathan was after.

Right by the entrance stood something hadn’t noticed on his way in. There were so few of them in this museum that they were easy to forget. The stay–back ropes that he normally saw around the exhibits in museums were instead held waiting on either side of the door. They were set firmly into the floor, as though this museum only ever cordoned off the whole room. Nathan veered towards one of the stands holding these stay–back ropes— stanchions, that’s what they were called. Ben was confused. What did Nathan want rope for?

“You must release this!” Nathan hissed. The words felt ancient and powerful, to Ben. There was more to the command than the spirit had translated. Ben searched for the sounds in his memory. “Ebenawi dowashte!” He tried to hang on to the syllables, but they melted away as soon as he grasped them. The command wouldn’t stay in his mind.

The rope’s fastenings responded to Nathan’s voice, and released themselves eagerly. Wisps of rope–cord and metal strings fluttered away, unravelling into the air. Marble around the heavy pillar crumbled to its composite bits. Hunks of gravel skittered away. Welds at the bottom melted into little silver drips, rolling into the rock dust. It had taken less than a second, but everything holding the stanchion had been unmade.

Nathan hauled the stanchion free as he reached it. He threw his battered body into the effort, and swung the stanchion up just as Samuel’s weapons reached him. One blade sliced halfway through the joint between shaft and base, and wedged there. The other deflected. Its edge skittered down the length of the stanchion. It threw sparking chips from its edge, before coming to rest against the other blade.

Samuel tucked his knees to his chest, letting his body’s momentum carry him over the stanchion. Midway through, he extended his spine. A swift kick lashed at Nathan’s jaw.

Nathan dropped his grip on the stanchion just before Samuel’s kick connected. The embedded blade yanked Samuel’s arm down, and took all the power out of that kick. Both of Nathan’s hands closed around Samuel’s ankle, and gave it a sharp yank. Samuel yelped, a child’s voice finally breaking through to Ben. Nathan let go, and retreated. He passed by Ben without sparing the boy a glance.

A shock of red caught Ben’s eye as Nathan neared. Samuel hadn’t connected, Ben was sure of that. There was still blood welling up around the corner of Nathan’s mouth. Nathan coughed, and a spray of red hit his lips. A little more started dripping from his nostrils. Even Nathan’s blood was pale, and thin. It spilled down past Nathan’s chin. Those streaks were way too bright. Nathan’s physical form was getting depleted, and the damage was beginning to show.

Nathan couldn’t keep this up for long.

Samuel couldn’t follow Nathan’s flight. He couldn’t put any weight on his damaged ankle, at least not for long. His pale eyes swept the room. He limped over to the special collection’s broken display, now missing three more of its weapons. He lifted his chipped blades, and tossed them back into the wreckage.

Ben crawled between the pistol cases. He didn’t know what else to do. They were both too fast, and too strong. He felt more useless than he had ever been, but he still refused to run away. He tucked himself out of sight, and silently begged Nathan to get the upper hand.

Samuel crossed from one side of the special collection to the other. He thumped the wall behind him, and screamed, “Tzoztiyune!” Ben felt the translation streak its way up his nerves. ‘Unlock, darlings!’

Daggers, knives, and weapons Ben couldn’t name came free of their fastenings. They clattered to the bottom of the broken case. Samuel caught a knife midway through its fall, and flung it at Nathan’s back. Nathan dove for the floor, twisting to the side as he fell. He’d reacted too late. The knife hit him in the back, just below his left wing.

Samuel flinched. He shuddered, and for a second Ben thought his eyes had changed. To Ben they had looked almost ice blue, just like Nathan’s, as they slid closed. It had to be a trick of the light, though, because when they opened they were nearly white again.

Then a knife whisked past Ben’s eyes. Ben flinched. It thudded into the pistol cabinet to his left, and wobbled there. Ben hadn’t even seen Samuel throw it. Another blade flew closer, and pinned a tangle of Ben’s red hair to the wall behind him.

Ben curled up as small as he could. There was nothing else he could do. He’d wedged himself into this narrow gap too well. The only way out was to clamber back into full view.

Those burning white eyes were fixed on him now. They drilled straight into him even though his eyes were closed. He could feel their intent whether he looked at them or not. They were inescapable, pits of white–hot hatred that held him and wouldn’t let go.

They froze Ben in place.

The next knife wouldn’t miss.

Part Five

Ben braced himself, and waited for the pain.

Suddenly the world lurched. His shoulder burned, twisting nearly all the way out of its socket. A viselike grip on his arm hauled him out of his hiding place, and dragged him along the floor. Glass scraped him, bits of it poking through Ben’s jeans.

“On your feet!” The command sizzled through Ben, stirring his limbs before his mind caught up. He was already scrambling to keep up by the time he understood what was going on. He clung desperately to Nathan’s arm, trying to ease the pressure on his aching shoulder.

Nathan hauled Ben in front of him. Another knife sailed past. It struck a case full of hammers, leaving spidery cracks before it fell. Nathan grabbed the stanchion off the ground as they passed it, then shoved Ben in front of him. Another knife sank into the back of Nathan’s shoulder. The hand holding Ben clenched. Violent spasms strained the bones in Ben’s forearm. Ben didn’t want to, but he couldn’t help yelping. Tears sprang to his eyes.

Just like that, Ben found himself shoved back into the shadows. Nathan dropped his grip on Ben, and hauled the hammer case away from the wall. The case fell on its side, creating a small shelter that hid Ben from the other end of the room.

Nathan kept running. Both hands were holding the stanchion now, as Nathan raced to the furthest windows. Nathan was going to crash into the wall at this rate! Ben tensed. Then Nathan spun, swinging the stanchion as he turned. Nathan let the stanchion go. Its momentum sent it spinning towards the glass.

The stanchion swept under the belly of an old airplane, and smashed into the window beyond. The base punched through, but something kept the rest of the window’s glass in place. Cracks radiated away from the impact. The stanchion slid, pulling itself halfway through the hole, then came to rest there.

Nathan made a small, frustrated sound, then ducked another knife. They weren’t missing by much. Nathan had little scratches on his face from a couple of narrow escapes. He wasn’t healing them at all.

Ben’s worry deepened. He began scratching the denim over his knees over and over, tracing the same lines every time. Samuel was still at the other end of the room. If he was barely missing from this far away, what would happen when that ankle healed?

Nathan sprinted back towards Ben. He slid into the shadows, just in time for another knife to hit the hammer case. It glanced off overhead. Nathan grabbed Ben’s chin, and turned Ben’s face to his. Their eyes met, and Ben’s breath stopped completely. He wasn’t ready to see desperation spoiling Nathan’s inhuman calm.

“He must not hit you!” Nathan waited for Ben to react, then put even more pressure behind his words. “Not even a scratch! Do you understand?”

“I— I’ll try,” Ben stammered. It’s not like he wanted to get hurt. He managed to nod, and Nathan let him go.

“Stay in front of me.” Nathan shoved Ben forward, and Ben started running. Nathan pointed him towards the far window, pushing him along as they ran. Nathan’s wings flared out behind them, fluttering low to hide their legs from view.

Ben’s heart pounded in his chest. “What are we going to do?”

“Just—” A deep thunk silenced Nathan, and Ben feared the worst. They slowed, which deepened Ben’s panic. He looked over his shoulder.

Nathan was looking up. Another thunk. Ben followed Nathan’s eyeline as well as he could, without irises to guide him. The old, fat airplane was swaying, and that drew Ben’s attention.

Another thunk. The airplane swung harder on the chains that held it aloft. There were a few slim knives stuck in the plane, Ben realized. One was dangling from the wing, hanging out of one of the flaps on a torn strip of cloth. Another had buried itself into a star painted on the plane’s tail. Samuel’s real targets, though, were the chains holding it up.

The chains were still shivering from the last impact when Samuel struck again. The next knife struck lower, hitting the plane’s body instead. The hit damaged one of the fastenings connecting the plane to its suspension. The plane groaned. The next hit opened a tear in the plane’s metal skin.

“Fuck!” Nathan grabbed Ben around the ribs. He hauled Ben off the ground. Another knife sailed over Nathan’s head. Nathan picked up speed. Part of a chain’s fastening tore free. The plane’s groaning turned into a screech. Twisting metal protested its torment before giving way. Nathan hurled Ben forward.

Ben’s hands whipped out, a futile attempt to protect himself from the fall. He was moving too fast, with too much force, for it to do any good. His palms struck the marble floor first. Delicate bones cracked. Each break sent sick, tingling shivers up Ben’s arms. His body landed a split second later, moving quicker than his broken hands. His slide picked up a rotation as he slowed. Dazed, he found himself turned back towards the room. The air was still knocked out of him, but Ben didn’t need air. He needed to know Nathan was okay.

Ben looked up just in time to see the airplane collapse. Its squat fuselage tore free of bullet–riddled wings, leaving broken metal pieces dangling above. They looked to Ben like mantis legs, trying to snatch the falling body back. The rest of the plane crunched as it hit, then came to rest briefly. A tire flopped onto its side under the cockpit, bits of a thin metal rod jutting out from it.

Chunks of glass shot up into the plane’s oddly shaped canopy, from somewhere in its belly. The pane in front blew right out of its frame. Ben flinched. He stared down at wicked debris landing in front of him. The old glass broke into tinier, sharper slivers than any he’d ever seen.

The airplane’s body rocked, hard. The pole sticking out of its nose wobbled, waggling a wire that draped all the way above it to its bent tail. Ben strained to see Nathan through its cloudy glass canopy. It was strangely triangular, to Ben, though it was still rounded off at the top. With those ribbed sections, it looked to Ben like it had been modeled off a Toblerone.

Suddenly the right side of Nathan’s face appeared through that cloudy Toblerone, and slammed hard against one of the panes. The old pane shattered. More of those wicked slivers came bouncing past Ben’s head. They splintered off ragged edges that ripped holes in Nathan’s cheek.

Ben couldn’t look at Nathan’s torn face. He couldn’t listen to the thumps as blow after blow drove Nathan’s head and shoulders into the half–wrecked cockpit. Ben jerked his eyes upwards. He watched a chain swinging between dangling wings, a little piece of thin metal still attached to it. The torn edges were so shiny. He stared up at painted stars, slipping in and out of sight on those big hinged wings. He took a breath, and tried to move his shattered hands.

Ben’s pain didn’t set in all at once. Gradually an ache built, then blossomed into unbearable agony. Ben didn’t want to give in, but his resolve failed quickly. He concentrated on the bones, and tried to hurry up the itch he knew would come when they mended.

The thumping stopped abruptly. Ben’s terrified eyes found Nathan. Nathan’s hands gripped the canopy frame, ignoring sharp edges that dug into the angel’s fingers. Nathan pushed away from the plane and turned. His broad brown wings blocked everything that was happening beyond them.

Ben flexed his tingling fingers. His eyes fell to the bloodied cockpit behind Nathan. Most of the canopy glass had fallen out of the big sections in front, after all those impacts. Ben couldn’t tear his gaze away from drips of red running down over ribs of exposed metal. There were bits of skin sticking to those ribs. Ben’s stomach lurched.

“Emeh–hui, towenu. Yanet–nuwo malayeish doa.” Samuel’s voice threaded into the silence, silken and hateful. “Deiz loheio malkaidotz.”

The spirit didn’t translate this for Ben, and his frustration grew. He reached deep, looking for the meaning of these words. He pulled them over and over in his mind until the spirit within finally yielded up some sense. ‘So this is the truth of what you stand by, then. You protect and exalt that child. How pathetic, to confuse this crawling thing you are with death itself.’ That was the best Ben could wring out of it. The words just slipped away.

Nathan’s wings sank below his shoulders, and that sent a chill through Ben’s heart. He’d only seen that happen a few times, and none of them had been good. He stared down at his mended hands, and channeled every bit of faith he could manage into their palms. Heat gathered there, and the air thickened around him. Ben mustered all of his resolve. He crept around the plane’s broken body, moving carefully until he could see Samuel’s face.

There was an odd peace in Samuel’s features. Those bright white eyes were closed. Why didn’t Nathan move? Nathan seemed to be waiting for something. Samuel had brought the last two swords from the special collection, the shortest ones that still had scabbards. He’d left them on the floor while beating Nathan, but now he bent to pick them up again.

Ben couldn’t wait any longer. He could feel power gathering on the other side of that airplane. Everything in him kept screaming at him to flee.

Do it.

Well, not quite everything in him. Ben ignored the voice, and concentrated on his hands. He tried to close his eyes. He thought it would let him focus better, but the spirit’s vision overtook his.

The spirit showed him Nathan’s expression. It showed Ben the angel’s burning, inhuman eyes. It showed him Nathan’s gritted teeth, the torn flesh on his cheek seeping blood down his pale neck. The right side of his face had been all but ruined by Samuel’s assault. There were slashes under his right eye, and his thin eyebrow was torn.

Nothing was healing. The angel wasn’t doing anything to fix its form. Nathan looked exhausted, and grim. There was no more fight left in that broken body. Nathan lowered his head, and drew in a deep breath.

Do it quickly.

Ben peeled his eyes open. He fought to reclaim his own vision. He rejected the thing inside him with all his might. He kept telling himself, he wouldn’t be its puppet. He didn’t put up with that. Not anymore.

It had been a long time since Ben had done anything the voice inside urged him to. He wasn’t going to start listening to it now. Ben told himself it didn’t matter, that the silvery voice wanted him to do what he was going to do anyway. He’d already made up his mind before hearing it. He wouldn’t let it change his plans.

Ben pulled all of his faith deep into his chest. In his imagination, he shoved his anxiety down towards his fingers, aching to let his tension go. The air stirred around him. It gathered into a tightly wound rush between his palms.

Fear made it hard to believe in himself, but he did his best. He had to be certain what he was doing would work. All the pressure, and all the shattered hope in him, rushed down his arms to gather at his fingertips. Nathan’s awful book popped into his mind, and that heartbreak surged through Ben too. All the force that had driven him to throw that stupid book now drove itself out to throw the air around him.

The broken window rattled behind him, and the plane’s swinging wings tossed over an unnatural current. The stanchion tapped an impatient rhythm against damaged glass. This hinted at success, but Ben didn’t let himself think about that. He just compressed all his pain, all his faith, everything he had left into the gathering pressure between his palms. He needed all of it right now.

Samuel brought the short swords up, and crossed them across his chest. As he drew them across one another, the blades sang another of their metallic songs. For a moment that distracted Ben. He thought he saw sparks hopping off the blades. They didn’t fade, though. Tiny little lights kept swirling around singing steel. Ben swallowed hard, his throat feeling tight. He concentrated even harder on his task.

“Malkazt.” Samuel’s whisper sizzled. Die. The blades swept wide, and their shower of living sparks arced toward Nathan. The sparks carried with them tiny curls of iridescent fire.

Nathan’s wings swept in around him, catching most of the sparks. They opened again, and shook off what they could. Some of the sparks landed around him. Blue–white fire fizzled where it hit marble. The knives caught fire first. Their handles burned away like flash paper at a magic show. The ancient plane lit eagerly. Even its metal plates caught fire, as if they were made up of equal parts tinder and enthusiasm.

Flames leapt up around Nathan, but Nathan stood his ground. He stared at Samuel. He seemed unmoved, even though some outer feathers on his wings shrank into burnt curls. Samuel whipped the blades forward. Streaks of blue–white fire, so pale Ben could hardly see them until they crossed the dark windows, came rushing after. They were closing in on Nathan swiftly. So was that wicked steel.

Ben was out of time. He splayed his fingers. He’d done this before. He knew he could do this. He put every ounce of faith he had into the way he pushed his hands forward. The pressure followed. It pulled air into a column, and trapped that air in a tight spin.

This sudden whirlwind closed around Samuel’s fire. At first the flames leapt higher, but Ben fought off the fear that he’d failed. Spinning air drew the fire up and away from Nathan. Blue–white light funneled into the column, and got trapped in there.

Firenado! Ben grinned. That was even better than what he’d planned. Ben drew his hands back, then shoved his palms at Samuel. With all his might he tried to turn those flames back to the jerk who made them.

Nathan spun in place. His eyes fixed on Ben. They filled with inhuman fury. Ice shot through Ben’s soul, chilling his blood. The reaction startled Ben. It stole the confidence from his impulsive attack. Wind and flame dissipated.

Cloth-wrapped feet hit marble and glass, then there was a scraping thump. Three quick steps, then a lunge. The fuselage rocked in place. Ben looked up. Samuel sailed over Nathan’s head, and over Ben’s too. His night–black wings arched forward, extending the leap. A quick twist in midair turned Samuel to face Ben as the angel hit the ground.

Samuel landed hard, and rolled to his feet between Ben and the wounded window. His back bumped against the stanchion as he rose.

Ben turned, and put his back to the battered plane. He tried to slide towards the tail. Maybe there was space between it and the wall. He didn’t think it landed flush. Why couldn’t he remember? Ben tried hard to remember. He only needed a little bit of space to get around it and away.

The look in Samuel’s eyes was beyond terrifying. Ben couldn’t put words to it. There was nothing remotely human left in that face. The words hate, rage, and bloodlust were all too small and simple to describe the expression it wore. Even together, they didn’t get close.

Ben’s body wouldn’t obey him. It knew, the knowledge was written deep in every cell: this was a predator he couldn’t escape. His muscles went limp. His limbs curled in on him as his body prepared to die. Again.

Tortured metal screamed behind Ben. It sounded worse than when Sarah tried ‘upcycling’ soda cans with a hacksaw. It scraped and shrieked until Ben’s teeth tingled. Hunks of fuselage sailed past Ben, skimming near him but never hitting him.

Ben wanted to look back, but he couldn’t take his eyes off Samuel’s deadly stare. Behind Samuel’s head, he caught a few tiny reflections in shattered glass. He saw Nathan rip what remained of the plane’s tail away from between them, and send it careening into the wall. With nothing to lean on, Ben fell back. He landed hard on his butt, and stayed there. Nathan grabbed a big metal tube and ripped it out of what remained of the plane. He whipped it towards Samuel. It spun in the air.

Samuel’s attention was fixed on Ben. Sheared–off metal hit the black–winged angel in the shoulder, but barely moved him. All this metal was lighter than it looked, or Samuel was just stronger. He didn’t even flinch. He advanced slowly, his swords dragging after.

“I didn’t see you,” Samuel whispered in English. “Why didn’t I see you?” His steps crunched horribly. Debris embedded in his wraps slowly ground to nothing under the angel’s seeping feet. That inexorable crunch brought a metallic panic to the back of Ben’s throat, and stopped his terrified heart in his chest.

Ben wanted to look away, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t do anything at all.

A heavy, boxy shape hurtled over Ben’s head, trailing shredded wires. Samuel dipped under it gracefully, then finally stopped. His eyes narrowed. He dropped into a crouch. His blades slid wide, pointed away from him. A shimmer went through those black wings, rippling them from upper knuckles to bottom tips.

Nathan swept in front of Ben. Ben had never been so grateful for a faceful of feathers. Mahogany wings spread defensively between Nathan and Ben, scooping back a little once they opened. They hid everything from Ben, and released him from that paralyzing gaze.

Something hit Nathan, and shoved him back. Nathan’s boots slid into Ben’s legs. Ben scrambled back a little, but there was debris everywhere. Slivers kept getting stuck in his hands. Torn metal tugged at his jeans. Ben grabbed at Nathan’s legs reflexively, trying to stop the sliding. He couldn’t hang on. Nathan was already in motion. He was lurching forward, challenging Samuel with all his failing strength.

Samuel’s blades made Nathan duck, and spin away from their attack. The motion swept Nathan’s wings towards the broken window, and forced him back across the last few feet of room. Nathan could barely keep out of Samuel’s reach. His face was still torn, and so very weary. All his determination couldn’t hide that he was at the very end of his strength. This surge of defiance wasn’t going to last. Samuel drove Nathan back against the furthest windows. It looked like the fight was almost over. Nathan braced himself, and so did Ben.

Samuel turned abruptly. His swords sang, dragged swiftly across the stone. He made a beeline for Ben, even as Ben managed to get up off the floor.

“Yasi’yoast!” Nathan shouted, chasing after the black–winged angel. Ben was too dazed, too frightened to search for the shout’s meaning. He staggered backwards, and lost his balance. Bright steel flashed. Ben’s eyes squeezed shut, and he couldn’t make them open. He hit the floor. He heard that metallic song closing in on him, but he kept scrambling. He had to get past his terror and get back to his feet. He knew he wasn’t going to make it, but he had to try.

“Alta maast!” Nathan’s voice thundered through the room, shaking and shattering display cases all the way to the entrance. Ben felt a weight hit him, and braced himself for the pain to follow. The familiar scent of fresh–cut violets, with its spice–laced undertones, flooded Ben’s senses.

Ben had breathed in the scent of Nathan’s wings before, but it had never been so strong. Ben looked up just in time to see broad, warm feathers spread over him, shutting out everything else. Dimly, he felt Nathan’s arms close around him, They tightened, gathering Ben close to the angel’s chest. Nathan’s torn chin tucked quickly over his hair, pinning Ben’s head below his. Familiar curtains of shimmering blue, hanging from Nathan’s temples, swept past Ben’s cheeks. They closed over Ben’s peripheral vision, and shut the world out.

Ben closed his eyes. Reflexively he reached forward, and curled his arms around his protector. His fingers dug into soft, silky down. Comfort and warmth flooded through him. For just that moment, Ben didn’t care about the blood, the dirt, and the glass. His whole sad and scary life was all part of a moment, and the moment would pass. Even this awful night seemed like something Ben could deal with, from underneath those wings.

A moment’s blessed silence. Then an inhuman shriek clawed at the world around them. Nathan’s chest drove violently against Ben’s body, then stilled. A shudder pressed the angel’s thin ribs forward, and Nathan’s weight fell heavily over Ben.

Tears stung Ben’s eyes. He squeezed them shut. The spirit’s vision overtook his again, and Ben didn’t even fight it. The spirit showed him everything.

Samuel had already been in the air, already mid–strike when Nathan ducked between them. Even as Nathan pulled Ben in close, even as his wings spread to protect him, Samuel’s blades were sweeping down, aimed at Ben.

It had all happened so much faster than Ben realized. Samuel hadn’t had time to react. At the very last, Samuel seemed to be trying to pull back on his strike. He’d tried to drag the points of those swords away, but there just wasn’t time. Both blades sunk into the backs of Nathan’s wings.

Samuel had been the one shrieking. That sound ripped itself from Samuel’s lips as his swords connected. He looked horrified. Then blue–white light streaked up his blades, and threw Samuel back. Samuel’s wings flared out to slow him. They were foggy and insubstantial, and couldn’t help him. Ben could barely see them. They’d turned sickly gray, with hints of brown edging their outer feathers.

Samuel hit the floor hard, and slid all the way back to the broken window. He came to rest under the stanchion. The ghostly outline of Samuel’s wings faded away.

Nathan’s arms hung limp now. Their grip melted into dead weight around Ben. The angel’s chin slid to Ben’s shoulder. Ben could feel blood drooling down his back. The angel seemed to struggle a little. His breathing sounded wet and erratic. He lurched forward. His wings were the last to drop, falling away with one final exhalation. Samuel’s swords, now stuck into nothing, clattered to the floor.

The body against Ben kept getting heavier and heavier. Ben shoved at Nathan, his anxiety rising as the angel’s weight drove him down into the debris. Finally he managed to get out from under the angel’s slow collapse.

Nathan was senseless by the time he hit the floor. His shoulder drove hard into broken glass and twisted metal. He didn’t even twitch. These fresh cuts barely oozed blood at all. Ben had seen enough to know these were terrible signs. He knew from personal experience what it looked like when a heart didn’t beat the way it should.

A chorus of car alarms chirped and wailed outside. There were a lot of them going, by the sound of it. He could hear them all the way down the street. Ben looked around. Blood, weapons and debris had been scattered everywhere. Nearly all the displays had been smashed or otherwise flung at something.

Ben finally found Reikha peering in from the room’s entrance. The museum guard trembled. He ended up staring at Samuel’s prone body against the far window.

“Come on!” Ben snapped, pushing some of the bloodied hair away from Nathan’s face. Every breath Nathan took was getting weaker. Ben took an apprehensive look at Nathan’s back, but this time the swords hadn’t gotten that far. Ben turned his attention back towards the doorway. “Don’t just stand there! Help me get them out of here before the cops get into this mess!”

“Yes.” Reikha cleared his throat, and lowered his eyes. “You’re right. Of course.” Reikha finally approached Nathan, and stooped to slip Nathan’s arms around his shoulders. The younger angel lifted Nathan easily. Gently, Reikha eased the taller body into a fireman’s carry over his back.

Ben moved away to give them room. He couldn’t watch Nathan being carried away like that. He still hadn’t gotten over nightmares that all started like that. He turned, and stalked toward the broken window.

The stanchion still hung halfway out of the pane, held in place by thick eco–friendly double–paned glass. Each giant pane had a small sticker bragging about that lamination. Ben kicked the stubborn window sullenly.

Ben took a deep breath. He finally made himself look down. The stanchion cast a shadow over the slender body beneath it. Hate tensed Ben’s frame, and balled his hands into fists at his sides. Samuel. The awful monster that nearly killed Nathan. The dark angel who’d tried so hard to destroy them both. He didn’t want to be afraid of those all–black wings anymore. He stood over that monster, and stared down at its defeated form.

Samuel seemed so small, now that he wasn’t moving. His eyes were closed, nearly hidden by long strands of silvery gray hair. His suit didn’t fit, Ben could see that now. Samuel’s half–buttoned shirt hung low over pants cinched tight by a strip of twisted cloth. The same cloth wrapping Samuel’s hands and feet had been wound into a crude rope, then tied around Samuel’s slender waist.

A rope. Samuel didn’t even have a belt. Why would he have a suit but not a belt? Samuel’s face looked clean, but his clothes were more than just bloody. There were bits of grass still clinging to the jacket, and there was dirt caught in the rolled–up cuffs. Those trousers were rolled up, too. Ben looked down at his own jeans. He wasn’t wearing his rolled–up hand–me–downs anymore. He hadn’t worn them for a long time.

Ben couldn’t hang on to his hate. He kept noticing little things, like how broken and brittle that gray hair really was. There were so many tangles in it. The bones in Samuel’s outflung wrist stuck out plainly against the skin, almost lost in that oversized blazer. Ben could see every contour of the joint inside. That little body looked so tired, and so very cold. Even Samuel’s cheeks were sunken. Drained of all its anger, that face was so painfully thin.

Ben’s heart ached. He’d never looked like this in all his life. Even after it. Nathan had, long ago, but Ben hadn’t. Nathan would never let any of these things happen to him. Ben bit his lip, and dragged it across his teeth. As bad as life had ever been for him, he’d never really been alone.

Nobody got like this if there was anybody else around.

No one had been taking care of Samuel at all.

Reikha cleared his throat awkwardly as he neared. He stood behind Ben, eclipsing the light. His shadow swallowed Ben’s, and fell across Samuel’s curled–up body.

“He’s just a boy,” Ben murmured. “Like me.”

Part Six

“Caw, caw, caw, caw, caw!”

Juno grumbled under his breath as he reached the living room. His pajamas swished. His bare feet padded silently towards the big bay window. His joints were not so silent, popping and creaking as he pressed on. It had been a long, frustrating night. He felt as though he’d barely shut his eyes before this racket began.

“Caw, caw, caw, caw, caw!”

A crow sat on the window’s outer sill, yapping its head off. Juno cursed the modern architecture— not a window on this wall opened. Good for the air conditioner he always kept roaring, but very bad for this particular moment. He thumped the window with the side of his fist. The crow fluttered its wings slightly. It gripped the windowsill, tail bobbing for balance as it settled back into place.

“Go away,” Juno snapped, “It’s too early for daylight.”

The crow tilted its head, turning one bright eye towards Juno in silent reproach.

Juno rubbed his eyes irritably, “You’re too far south to be yapping at this hour.”

The crow responded with a few low vocalizations, and babble that almost sounded like human speech. It bobbed its head, then rapped its beak sharply against the glass.

Juno remained unimpressed. He stifled a yawn, and shooed the bird. “Sissamaguqtuq,” he muttered, his tired mind slipping back to the tongue of his fathers. English was an effort this early, and he didn’t always bother now that it was just he and May living here.

It didn’t seem the bird understood him any better in either tongue. The bird’s head dipped, and then its beak delivered three more loud impacts against the glass. Juno groaned. “Go away!”

The crow simply rapped again. Juno turned back. He stepped back onto the carpet, heading back across the living room. He was determined to go back to sleep, whether the bird left or not.

Another round of taps set his temper off, and Juno hissed between his yellowed teeth. “Suviaàautit!” Juno hopped back onto the hardwood floor. He stormed his way to the window, and yanked a throw pillow off the futon. He hurled it at the window. It struck with a satisfying thump. The bird fluttered away from the windowsill, punctuating its departure with an offended squawk.

There were more thumps, though, and then some more rapping. Wrong direction. That racket wasn’t coming from the crow anymore. A shiver went through Juno, a thrill of recognition. His groggy mind lost its grip. Angelic consciousness stirred to the surface beneath it.

At this point, Juno was more than happy to surrender to his spirit. Its influence let the aches of early morning fall away. He straightened. His eyes picked up a soft green light that replaced his faded vision. Temper gave way to anticipation, and he strolled towards the sound.

Juno opened the door with a smile. He was always prepared to welcome travelers, as befit anyone who would be May’s husband. The opportunity to honor her was a comfort that lifted his heart.

Juno looked down to find his visitor. His smile swiftly faded. Big green eyes looked defiantly up at him. They challenged him from beneath bloodied clumps of auburn hair. Juno’s mood soured. This moment was as confusing as it was unwelcome. He had no idea why this thing should bring with it any recognition at all. Perhaps Nathan’s grace still clung to the child.

“You’re not welcome here,” Juno stepped back and attempted to close the door. Ben’s small hand hit the door, stopping it halfway. The boy looked up, his little face dead serious.

“I thought everybody was welcome, where May lives.”

Juno’s jaw tightened. His breath hissed out between clenched teeth. “Don’t bring her into this.” Pain clawed at his heart, and put a little more strength into his shove against the door. That thing looked like a child, but it was inhumanly strong.

“I wouldn’t if I knew what else to do.” The boy would not be moved.

Behind Ben, the little Image from the museum… what was the name… ah. Reikha stepped into the narrow hallway. He carried a bundle of rumpled clothing as though it were intolerably toxic.

That shiver came again, lifting the tiny hairs along Juno’s weathered skin. Distant hints of burnt leaves and winter spices teased at Juno’s senses. Juno noticed small, stained feet in the bundle Reikha held. Little black nails peeking out of cavernous sleeves. Long gray hair, incongruous on such a small body. That was an angel, no doubt, and a seriously weakened one.

“Stand aside,” Juno muttered to Ben. Ben nodded, and retreated into the hall. Juno motioned to Reikha impatiently. “Well, bring it closer,” he prompted. “Nothing gets in here without my getting a good look at it. Not anymore.” His gaze slid back to Ben pointedly, and the child rolled his eyes in return.

Whatever he carried, Reikha seemed genuinely horrified by it. That made Juno curious, more than anything. As the bundle got closer, Juno caught sight of the boy’s face, and how young it was. His heart squeezed in his chest. How cruel this war was becoming. This vessel was hollowed out from within. Barely a whisper of humanity clung to it. It had long since fallen victim to the angel inside, a desperate spirit trying to claw its way out.

Another brother, violently awakened before his time. Juno’s eyes stung, and he blinked quickly to clear them. Things that shouldn’t happen were all too common these days. He wasn’t sure he had the strength to face them down again.

Little tremors still sent goosebumps across Juno’s leathery skin. That presence wasn’t nearly as weak as he’d thought. When it reached him, it resonated strongly. It just wasn’t reaching him for very long.

Barely an echo of this angel’s presence escaped it. When anything did escape this angel, it drew back in almost immediately. Drawing in the spirit. Few of his brothers had that talent. Fewer still could maintain the effect while incapacitated. Juno only knew of two. One of them was beyond possibility. The other wouldn’t come to mind.

Gently, Juno brushed the hair back from the child’s face, then took a small hand in his. The boy’s skin was pale and cold. Those little fingertips were like ice. Memories taunted him, dancing at the edge of his perception. Something was triggering his recognition, even though so little escaped that dormant spirit. He should be able to find something, but he couldn’t remember what. A sign, perhaps, a glyph that spoke for itself. Juno pushed the child’s sleeves up along the arms, then tugged the pant legs up above the knees. There were newly knitted wounds, and faint traces of old scars, but nothing Juno recognized. What was he looking for?

Juno’s careful examination made it painfully clear how hard Reikha was trembling. Juno looked up curiously, his green eyes prompting the museum guard out of his silence.

“Black wings!” Reikha gasped. “He has night–black wings!”

A flash of memory shot through Juno. He froze. He knew where to look. His arthritic fingers drifted back to the boy’s gray hair, and lifted it away from the left side of the child’s face. Tingling shivers along his spine intensified. Juno pushed the hair a little further, exposing the boy’s neck behind the ear.

There! A birthmark— the distinct shape of a seahorse, its tail curled beneath it. Memory flashed behind Juno’s eyes, condensing into a sigil that named the angel. Samuel! Juno withdrew his hand quickly. He staggered back a step, and caught his ragged breath.

“Get him inside!” Juno stepped out of the way. “Put him on the futon. And for the love of Heaven, cowboy up! That’s the Right Hand of the Gate you’ve got there!”

“Y–y–yes sir,” Reikha lowered his head respectfully. He shuffled past Juno, and carried Samuel into the apartment.

The scent Juno had been trying to ignore, the presence soaked into the child’s clothing, lingered after Reikha carried him by. Blood he knew, mixed with freshly cut violets and haunting spices. Funereal. It brought a heaviness to Juno’s heart, one he’d never voiced and never would. There was so much of it, splattered all over the child’s clothing. Too much. Juno couldn’t ignore that any more.

“Where is he,” Juno said, without looking at Ben.

“He’s downstairs, in Reikha’s car,” Ben said softly. “He’s barely breathing, and he’s not healing yet. He hasn’t been healing that well for a long time. Didn’t Devon tell you?” The question hung in the air for a moment. Juno didn’t think about it, and didn’t answer. He just pulled that floral scent in until it faded, though the weight on his heart remained.

“He’s worked so hard to get better,” Ben said, his voice flat despite the pain behind his expression. “If nobody helps him now, all that work is going to be for nothing. So if nothing else matters, you’d be wasting months of Devon’s time.”

“I’ll have our little brother fetch him,” Juno said softly, reaching to shut the door. “Go home and wait.”

“I won’t leave without him,” Ben said, his tone ringing of finality. “You can kick me out but I’ll just come back. I’ll stand right here until he comes out.”

Juno paused. He’d tried to avoid it, but his eyes finally came to rest on the boy. There was loyalty in the child… or whatever it was that remained of what that body had been. There was a dogged kind of faith that wouldn’t let go.

Juno didn’t want to see Ben without seeing what the boy was capable of. He couldn’t ignore the unspeakable hate that had shredded matter and spirit as though they were nothing. Something in this little boy had twisted its fingers into the world and used them to torment… Juno sighed. The memory of Ben’s victim was long since gone, and all that remained was the act itself. The horror of realizing what Nathan had brought into his home.

He couldn’t resolve that fractured memory with the small but courageous son of Man standing before him. That monstrous thing bore no resemblance to this little kid demanding his place at a wounded angel’s side. He couldn’t ignore that demand, either. Not when it was made in such a selfless and uncompromising way. No one from the Pit could ignore that, least of all one of Atarasi’s kihenei.

Juno closed his eyes, and turned away from the door before opening them again. “You may wait inside,” he said, without looking back. No matter what the boy had done, Juno knew Ben belonged here tonight. May wouldn’t want him turning loyalty and love away from their door. He let the boy walk past him, then returned to the problem at hand.

Juno joined Reikha before the big bay window. Despite his fear, Reikha stood guard over Samuel at the foot of the futon. Juno’s heart went out to the angel a little— he knew all too well what it was like to feel completely out of his league.

And on the subject… “Bring the Makhvet up,” Juno told Reikha. The epithet made things easier. Uttering it put a little distance in. Distance eased the pressure in Juno’s chest, even if it did deepen the ache in his tired old bones.

Reikha nodded. He kept his head lowered, and backed away. It wasn’t until he reached the hardwood steps that he turned, then headed for the door. He and Ben passed each other just inside the foyer. Ben removed his shoes, and placed them carefully in the rack. Everything the boy did was so deliberate. He stayed on the mat there, trying to shake bits of glass and metal out of his wrecked jeans.

Juno looked back to Samuel. Just another stranger passing through, he told himself. He was too old to face the situation otherwise. He’d made all the mistakes he could handle, and he was done making more. Second chances were for men who could see them through. It was far too late to involve himself in any of this.

Three taps on the window drew his eyes up again. The crow cocked its head, then turned it a little, one bright eye taking in Samuel’s prone form. Its wings fluttered slightly as it shifted position, then it tapped again.

Juno nodded to the bird, his irritation long forgotten. “Too old to go looking for daylight too,” he whispered to the crow. He unfolded one of the older blankets, and spread it over Samuel’s curled–up body. “But we do, don’t we.”

Ben padded over, his white socks peeking out from under distressed denim. He stopped before he got too close to Juno, but he seemed to be trying to get a look at Samuel. Juno pulled another blanket out, and draped it over the sleeping angel. He left Samuel there, and let Ben get his look.

Juno reached the kitchen, and pulled the kettle off the stove. He turned on the tap, and let it fill. Like its owner it was aging, and worn, but it still served. The tea it made tasted a little of rust and old metal, but that taste brought with it a lifetime’s worth of memories. Some of those memories were filled with comfort, some of them bore bitter pains. All of them, he held precious. He set the kettle on the stove. He turned on the burner, then leaned heavily against the counter.

Not healing well. Juno wondered why. He didn’t want to dwell on the question, but he couldn’t help it. He’d complied with Devon’s requests while keeping himself as uninvolved as he could manage. It was so much easier to sign papers and make calls than confront the situation directly.

The front door closed, giving Juno a quick escape from his thoughts. He walked out to meet Reikha.

The little Image was having a lot of trouble with six foot three of dead weight. Far less weight than there should have been, though. Nathan was thinner than he had been since Juno first met him. His lips were blue, and his cheeks looked sunken.

Juno moved to help. He scooped Nathan’s legs up by the ankles. Reikha already had a good grip around that sunken chest. Together they moved Nathan easily. Ben was already at the guest bedroom door, sliding it open. The boy scurried inside.

Juno and Reikha carried Nathan to May’s old canopy bed. Bare wood framed its elegant posts. Its drapery was long gone, though never forgotten. Juno stepped on something, and Reikha nearly tripped. Juno lifted his foot. Reikha pulled that something free. The coat. Reikha had Nathan’s coat draped over his arm. Nathan still wore that old thing. Of course he did. Nathan still had nearly every formal shirt and tunic he’d ever worn. Three years wouldn’t retire that camel coat. Three or thirty, so long as it held together. Juno glanced back at Ben briefly, and bumped into the bedframe. His attention pulled back to the task at hand.

Reikha pulled the sheets back, and they eased Nathan into bed gently. Juno pulled Nathan’s boots off, and set them down. Ben picked them up, and carried them out to the shoe rack by the front door. Juno could hear Ben brushing them off on the mat, too.

“Well done,” Juno broke the silence to thank Reikha. “You may go. I’ll take care of them from here.”

“Thank you,” Reikha inclined his head respectfully, his voice hushed. “But I clearly led the Makhvet into a trap.” Shame dragged his chin a little lower. “I was too frightened to help him. I feel I should remain until he sees fit to release me.”

“As you wish,” Juno murmured. There were gashes across Nathan’s cheek. Those wounds had bits of glass and debris in them. “Fetch me the kettle once it boils,” Juno told the little Image. “A large bowl from under the sink, and a washcloth from the hall closet.”

Juno picked a bit of metal off Nathan’s cheek. A peel of corroded aluminum. It wasn’t really necessary to help, and he knew that. If Nathan healed himself over that debris, he’d probably just absorb or destroy it. For all Nathan’s bitter complaints about tetanus, Juno had never seen the Makhvet get an infection. None of the elder angels seemed to, once they’d awakened.

Still, cleaning it out gave Juno something to do beyond watch.

Juno turned Nathan’s face away from his, exposing more of the wounds. One by one he pulled little slivers of glass and metal from the gashes. He dropped them onto the low coffee table nearby. A few of them stuck into his leathery fingers, but he paid that no attention. He just squeezed them out and returned to his task.

Reikha finally returned. He set the kettle, the empty bowl, and the cloths on the table beside Juno. He sank next to the table, but Juno stopped him with a gesture.

“Samuel will need to be guarded,” Juno murmured. It didn’t surprise him, that so many of these wounds smelled of burnt leaves. Juno couldn’t dwell on why. Not right now. “He may wake in a terrible state. I need you to keep watch, and let me know as soon as that happens.”

“Of course.” Reikha ducked his head obediently, and backed out of the room. Juno let out a short, dry sigh. He shook his head. The young guard was going to trip and crack his skull if he kept up that deference. Yet more blood to clean off his floors.

Juno pulled the table closer. He tipped the kettle into the bowl, and dipped one of the washcloths into the hot water. He let the air cool it a little. He couldn’t help noticing, in his peripheral vision, how little movement stirred Nathan’s ribs. He let one hand fall, to rest against them. Wet, heavy, and rumbling.

“Lungs seem to give you the most trouble,” Juno murmured. “I wonder, sometimes, if it was always so.” He knew Nathan couldn’t hear him. No awareness returned to Juno, when memory stretched in the Makhvet’s direction. Everything about Nathan seemed well out of reach. Everything but his wounds.

Juno wrung excess water out of the washcloth, then set it against Nathan’s cheek. Little bits of glass washed out, along with some dried blood. Juno let a little of his own energy flow down through the water, infusing the cloth beneath his fingers. Slowly, sluggishly, the rips in Nathan’s face began to heal.

Juno squeezed bloody water out into the bowl, then poured a little more boiled water on. The familiar ritual repeated itself, keeping the cloth clean and hot. There were cruel gashes seeping from Nathan’s shoulders and sides as well. Some of them bore no trace of any spirit but Nathan’s, but Juno suspected Samuel had delivered them all.

Juno shuddered. Thinking about those strikes made his blood run cold. When it came to that loss, Juno could do nothing. Broken flesh was all he could reach. He cleaned the punctures carefully, dislodging bits of marble and metal. The effort got easier as he went on. He tended to Nathan’s fingers carefully. Nathan never spared a thought to what he grabbed. They had that in common, sometimes. Juno flexed his gnarled fingers, until a little trapped gas popped out of his knuckles. He slid the bowl beneath Nathan’s left hand, and squeezed the washcloth out over those sliced fingers. He rinsed frail bits of glass out, too fragile for touch.

As Juno cared for Nathan’s wounds, he let more of his spirit flow into the act— bit by bit he offered energy to the wounded angel’s healing. Acceptance drew in Juno’s offering without resistance. The act left Juno drained, but the soft, dry sound of Nathan breathing felt like a reward. There was a little color in that sleeping face now, and none of it blue.

Juno let the cloth drop into the bowl, and looked down at that face for a moment. There were too many conflicting thoughts all crowding through at once. He shoved them all to the back of his mind. He rose slowly. His creaking bones felt so heavy this morning. He reached for the kettle. Maybe this time he could actually get some tea.

Thin fingers clasped his wrist. They caught him before he could lift himself away. Juno’s eyes snapped back towards the bed.

The Makhvet’s eyes were still closed, his breathing deep and even. Juno dropped his gaze to his captured wrist. Pale fingers held on, and wouldn’t let go. An involuntary gesture. One he’d seen before. A subconscious reflex left over, from a child that always ended up alone.

Juno hesitated. Gradually that grip loosened, and Nathan’s hand fell back to the bed. Juno turned, and left Nathan to his rest. He dropped the cloths in the bowl, and brought the kettle as well.

Juno finally emerged into the living room. Reikha waited there to take the bowl. Juno shook his head and moved towards the kitchen, leaving Reikha to guard the Makhvet. Juno emptied the bowl into a colander, and set it aside. He rinsed it gently. He’d deal with the debris later, but he didn’t want it in the pipes.

A thin film of blood still clung to the sink. Juno washed it carefully down the drain. He knew there was nothing clinging to his hands, but he washed them again just the same. Juno put the kettle back on, and went to check on the rest of his guests.

Ben was standing near Samuel, but staring out the plate glass window. There were four dark shapes there now, rather than one. One bird, and three tricksters playing at birds. Not only were they enormous, but they walked wrong. Their joints moved too far and too freely, letting them fondle and harass the actual crow in their midst. They picked through its feathers, pulled at its wings, and lifted its tail. This last indignity drew screeches, as the true crow bobbed furiously.

As Juno approached the window, the imposters settled. They brought their heads low in belated deference. The offended crow reared its neck up, and brought its beak down hard on top of the biggest one’s skull. It delivered three solid knocks, drilling them in mercilessly. Even through the window, that hollow drumming carried loudly.

“Should have known,” Juno muttered. He’d chased these three all night. A tidy enough diversion. His eyes fell to Samuel. These were allies, then. He’d been moved out of the way.

Juno sniffed, and rubbed the side of his nose. Foresight virtues. Always such complex plans. He shook his head. He couldn’t really relate to angels who relied on seeing even a little bit ahead. The whole idea ran against the grain, so to speak, where he was concerned. But then, it took all kinds to make a universe. Yusom was a planner, always a few steps ahead— but he always relied on luck when it counted.

One of the tricksters poked its way through the window. The faux crow’s head slipped out of the material world just enough to pass through the glass. It stretched its neck forward. Its beak clicked together rapidly. It pivoted its head nearly all the way around, looking up at Juno plaintively from its twisted position.

“Oh no you don’t,” Juno snapped. “You can wait, but you wait outside.” The head withdrew obediently. All four birds— real and otherwise— sat patiently on the ledge.

“You see them too?” Ben stammered. “All of them?”

“Yes,” Juno said, irritation still leaking into his tone. “Troublesome pests. Maka would be very offended if I invited them in.” Juno cast a wary eye towards the nearest vent, and listened for movement. Nothing so far. “They’re fools to try treading any further into his claim.”

The boy nodded, and looked back into the window. He sighed, and looked back at Juno. Juno could practically feel a question begging to be asked, but the child held his tongue. Juno rubbed his face, knotted fingers pulling layers of wrinkles briefly out of place. Ben’s silence got louder by the moment.

“Well? What is it, then?” Juno prompted.

“Just…” Ben wrung his little hands. “I know May is sick, and I’m not supposed to talk about it.”

Juno frowned, but waited for the boy to continue.

Ben looked up, with worry in his big green eyes. “I just… it seems really stupid to ask, is she OK?” Ben looked down again, and wrung his nervous fingers all the harder. “Because I know she’s not.” Ben struggled hard for his next words. “So maybe, I mean… are you guys… umm.. is your family OK?”

Juno turned his back on Ben quickly, and closed his eyes. That aching weight sank heavier than ever in his heart, so heavily he could barely breathe. This was the wrong timing. Too much at once.

Juno opened his eyes, then cast an irritated glance down at Samuel. Nathan’s blood was soaked into dirty, ill–fitting clothing. That goddamned funereal aura still clung to it.

Ben didn’t say anything else. He just waited patiently for some kind of reply.

Juno had nothing to offer. He’d run out of answers. He walked away.

Part Seven

Ben sat beside the boy on the futon.

He knew that Samuel was an angel. All the cuts and bruises Nathan had managed to deal Samuel were long since faded. Those eyes were closed now, but Ben still remembered the way they burned from lid to lid. Every time they twitched, Ben felt fear twist in his guts. He couldn’t forget the way those eyes made him feel like— no, they made him sure he was going to die.

All Ben could see right now, though, was a little boy. Soft breathing moved a thin, fragile chest. Lashes rested on rounded cheeks. He was a little pinker than Nathan, but he was still really pale. Only the tops of his cheeks were dusted with the faintest hint of freckles.

People said that when children slept, they looked like angels. It was the other way around. Angels were terrifying even when they were beautiful. Asleep, though… Samuel looked like any other kid.

No. Not just any kid. A little boy whose life was gone because of the war of angels, just like Ben.

Just like Nathan. Ben bit his lip, and tried not to think about that for too long. He was still too upset and too rattled to deal with this roller coaster of a day. Besides… judged that way, he’d had it better than either of them. Samuel and Nathan had their lives taken away long before Ben lost his.

At least Ben’s mother was still out there somewhere. Samuel’s couldn’t be. No mother would let her son go out like this. There were times Ben felt like he could set himself on fire without his mother noticing, but he had to admit that wasn’t fair. Even Ben’s mother would have thrown a fit if he’d walked out of the house holding his suit pants up by a cord.

Though, come to think of it, he didn’t know why anybody would do that in the first place. It had struck him as weird in the museum, and he thought about it a little more now. Suits always had a belt, didn’t they? The only times Ben had ever been forced into a suit were funerals, and that awful birthday where he had to give a speech. When somebody made him wear one, they always came with belts and shoes.

The room was so quiet even Samuel’s breathing seemed loud. A soft scrape cut through that. Ben turned in place. He saw Juno first, standing in the hallway Ben always assumed went back to the master bedroom. Juno was waiting there, quietly nursing a cup of tea. Ben averted his eyes quickly, and found Nathan blinking in the guest room doorway.

Sunlight was pouring in through the big bay window by now. Nathan pinched the bridge of his nose. It wasn’t going to do any good. Ben could already tell. When Nathan winced that hard, a migraine was already in full effect. Only coffee and rest would make it go away, and Ben could only ever get Nathan to take the coffee.

“That took long enough,” Juno muttered into his cup.

“I’ll get out of your hair as soon as I can,” Nathan muttered, rubbing his forehead wearily. “I can’t leave until Samuel recovers, anyway. He’ll need my help.” Nathan sighed, and dropped his hand. “Probably a shit–ton of answers, too.”

Juno nodded. He gestured towards Samuel with his mug. “Your problems still drop at my doorstep, it seems.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Nathan grumbled. “One of these days we’re going to have to have a conversation about who dragged who where.”

“Yeah, well,” Juno muttered into his cup. “So’s your face.”

“Any time you want to start making sense, little brother,” Nathan pinched the bridge of his nose even harder. Yep. Full–on migraine. Ben sighed. No good day ever started with a full migraine.

“So’s your face always—” Juno made an exasperated sound, and finished his tea in one gulp. “Forget it. If you don’t get it, I can’t teach it.” He turned abruptly, and headed down the hall.

Nathan watched him go. “Whatever that was about,” Nathan muttered under his breath. Reikha, standing beside the door, just looked uncomfortable. Nathan finally turned to give Reikha a nod.

Ben flinched as the right side of Nathan’s face swung into view. Ben was anticipating those awful gashes, but they had all healed up. That was a surprise. He couldn’t see the usual curls of fresh clean hair, or pushed–out nails, that he expected from Nathan’s quick healing.

Ben wanted to be encouraged by that, but it really only felt like one more thing he didn’t understand. All the surprises he’d been through in the past 24 hours were getting to be too much for him to deal with. He just wanted one thing to go the way he thought it would.

Ben realized too late that he’d been staring. Nathan’s eyes were resting on his. That calm blue glow seeped through Ben, whether he wanted it to or not. Ben pulled his eyes down. Nathan didn’t seem to notice. He kept looking towards the futon. He must have been looking at Samuel. One more thing Ben felt like he’d gotten wrong. Ben swung his feet. His heel caught the futon, and made a satisfying thud.

Reikha started to whisper something, then stopped abruptly as Nathan strolled past. Nathan approached, and put his back to the window. That eased the wincing, at least. “Good call, by the way,” he murmured.

“Huh?” Ben didn’t look up.

“Bringing us here.” Nathan sank into a crouch, studying Samuel with brightly glowing eyes. His voice dropped to an even softer murmur. His chin ticked subtly towards Reikha, still standing guard across the room. “He’s polite, and sincere, but he’s not the brightest star in the heavens. I’m not sure that particular penny would have dropped in time.”

“Yeah.” Ben really wanted to ask what that saying meant, even though he got the general idea. Instead he studied Samuel just as hard as Nathan did, just from a different angle.

Ben didn’t expect to notice anything new, but he did. A little yellow paper was pinned to the back of Samuel’s collar, not far from the seahorse birthmark Juno found. “Hey…” Ben cleared his throat. He leaned in a little closer. There were two. There was another bit of paper just like it on Samuel’s shirt.

“What?” Nathan cupped his head in his hands briefly, then lifted it to look. “What is it?”

“Does 300 mean anything?” Ben tilted his head. “Maybe 388. I can’t really tell if those are slashes through zeros or if they’re eights.”

Nathan’s eyebrow ticked slightly, then he smiled a little. “Let me see.” He stood, and approached Samuel from Ben’s angle. He reached out, and pulled back Samuel’s collar until both tags were exposed.

“Yeah,” Nathan nodded, and let go of the collar. “It means he didn’t bother taking off the tags when he stole the suit from the dry–cleaner.” Nathan shook his head. “And that some kid out there might get out of going to a wedding or a funeral.” Nathan picked at the cord around Samuel’s waist. “Probably tore his wrappings off somebody’s good tablecloth.”

“Wow,” Ben bit his lip, and dragged the dry skin across his teeth. It stung a little, but he did it again anyway. “Nathan, how can he do that? Why doesn’t anybody see that he’s run away?”

“We can be tricky as hell when we need to be,” Nathan said softly. There was something weird in the way Nathan said that, but Ben couldn’t deal with guessing at what it was. “If he meant what I thought he meant, though, he’s been trying to get here for a long time. That means plenty of people noticed.”

“Noticed, but didn’t really care,” Ben said bitterly. “Just stuck him in a system, like you said they would with me.”

“Precisely.” Nathan reached over, and picked at one linen–bound hand. “It’s a really strange mix of everybody watching and nobody giving a shit about what they see. Beyond not wanting to see it anymore, I mean.”

Guilt kept Ben silent. He knew more than Nathan realized, about why Nathan would say that. He knew he should want those stolen memories to go away, but he really didn’t. That scared kid Nathan used to be was the only part of Nathan than Ben could really relate to at all. Even if that kid was nearly gone, replaced by a big soulless angel, Ben still felt better knowing he used to be there.

“It doesn’t last.” Nathan turned Samuel’s hand a little. He examined it, then placed it back on Samuel’s hip. “You can’t really move around freely until the world’s thoroughly given up on you.” He stretched a little, and looked towards the kitchen. “For those of us who don’t stay cute forever, though, that happens pretty quick.”

Ben nodded glumly. He rushed to change the topic. “Samuel. He’s…” Ben blurted the first word of his question out, then realized he had no idea how to ask the rest of it. “I mean you…”

“We go way back,” Nathan went back to the window. He put his back to it, and leaned against the glass.

“So what happened in there?” Ben looked up, searching the angel’s face for answers. All he found was a lot of tiredness, and a tableau of pain. That migraine was really bad.

“It would take a lot of explaining,” Nathan brushed the question aside with a gesture. “You’d be bored to tears.”

After everything Ben had learned from Nathan, that answer irritated the crap out of him. “Okay, fine,” Ben snapped, “Whatever. Don’t tell me. It’s not like I’ve ever saved your life or anything.” He hated being passive–aggressive, but sometimes a gem like that just popped out. Whatever.

“You know, there’s only so far you can take that, so much you can milk it for.” Nathan sighed. He let his head fall back against the glass. “I’m really fucking old. Saving my life isn’t as big a deal as you might think.” He gestured to Samuel, “He and I have saved each other’s lives once or twice. As you can see, it isn’t exactly having a staggering impact on our interaction.”

“Right, well, what would I know about anything or anyone,” Ben folded his arms. He was done fighting his own pile of tired and angry at this point, and he didn’t care if Nathan knew it. “I almost forgot. I’m just a stupid little monkey.”

“Oh for the love of—” Nathan pinched the bridge of his nose a little harder, and grimaced. “Fine. What exactly do you want to know?”

“What did he do to you at the end of that fight?” Ben’s arms unfolded, and he leaned forward eagerly. “Why didn’t you let me help? Why were you more scared about a few knife cuts than when I took a stake to the chest? Is he poison or something?” All Ben’s confusion came spilling out in a torrent of questions. “When he stabbed you in the back, he didn’t get past your wings! Why’d you pass out? How did you hurt him so badly? What happened, Nathan?”

Nathan struggled for words. “He’s… I mean… it’s hard to explain.” Nathan’s eyes unfocused. Ben shut his own eyes. Sometimes when Images talked, it was easier to see what they were trying to say than to listen to the words. One of many things I picked up on long before you taught me, Ben noted to himself. Stupid little monkey that he was.

“When he strikes at something… he takes a portion of it.”

Images of the black–winged angel fighting flashed past Ben’s eyes, strikes that sent glimmers leaping up the weapons. Samuel liked all kinds of weapons, it seemed, as long as they were pointy. There were all sorts of fights from all kinds of cultures slipping past Ben’s perception. Ben couldn’t get a good look at any of them.

“He absorbs things, including his own echoes. When he’s awake enough to really make use of his talents, he leaves no trace of himself behind.”

Ben could see, now, how people in battle scuttled to get out of Samuel’s way. Big fights would break up when those black wings got near, and they got really close before anyone saw them.

“It’s a rare talent. It’s why I didn’t sense him nearby.”

“Is that why people are so afraid of his black wings?” Ben asked, without opening his eyes. The images stopped for a moment, frozen in place.

“That’s a whole different kind of scary,” Nathan murmured. “One at a time.”

“Sure,” Ben shrugged. “If you think my stupid little monkey brain can contain two angel things at once.”

“You got what you wanted,” Nathan said gently, “Now cut it out.”

“Okay,” Ben relented. “So he absorbs what people leave behind?”

“No. He takes from their spirits directly.”

The images resumed again. There was something to the way Samuel fought. He struck quickly and efficiently. He brought angels down with one or two blows. Maybe he had to. Each strike that pierced the other angel sent bright streaks of energy from the victim to Samuel, even when the weapon was thrown.

“What’s it like to take from somebody like that?” Ben whispered.

“I don’t know,” Nathan replied. He kept talking, but the words were less important than what they brought to Ben’s mind.

Ben was beginning to see it now, the way Samuel would be affected when that energy hit him. Sometimes he staggered, but most of the time it was subtler than that. A wince. A small gasp, a shuddering breath. Ben wasn’t sure, but it looked like it hurt. The more Samuel absorbed, the more it slowed him down.

“If it’s what he’s supposed to do, though, why does it hurt him so much?”

“Supposed to do?” That quick, sharp scoff froze the fighting in Ben’s mind. “Trust me, Ben. What we can do is no indicator of what we should do. Who can even say what we’re supposed to do?”

“Well, you talk about things that are in your nature. Isn’t this in his?” Ben pouted a little, despite his best efforts. Maybe it wasn’t the best question, but it didn’t deserve to be mocked.

“There’s nothing natural about what he does. What he takes, he owns, even once his victim dies. Bits of the living and the dissolute alike dwell within him, sustained by his spirit. Even nameless things, so rent apart they have no memory of themselves, remain suspended in his grasp. It’s a talent very few of us have ever had, and it is deeply feared.”

“Wait, that means he…” Ben opened his eyes, and found Nathan looking dead serious. “You said your memories of each other fade once you’re gone, because there’s nothing left of the person. But if Samuel’s got pieces of the person, does that mean he can remember them?”

“Every kill,” Nathan nodded, his tone turning somber. “And every lost friend he’s ever gotten a good stab at.”

Ben let that sink in. He looked down at Samuel, then back to Nathan. He didn’t even need to ask the question. Nathan nodded, and looked away.

Nathan rubbed his shoulder, and winced a little. “I guess I wasn’t entirely being honest with you, when I said no one would remember me.” Nathan’s eyes fell to Samuel, and the sadness in his expression deepened. “He’s taken enough, I’d be surprised if he ever forgot.”

“So he’s got pieces of you? Like the pieces of spirit stuck in me?” Ben shuddered. “You don’t, like, pull his strings too or anything?”

Nathan shook his head. “What he’s taken of me is still me, still mine, but right now it’s out of my control.” Nathan’s jaw clenched briefly, making tendons flash along his neck. “It’s an unnerving sensation. Not one I think about if I don’t have to.”

“And that’s why you think it’s a mercy, that you get forgotten,” Ben looked down at the boy. “Because you’ve seen what it’s like when somebody remembers.”

“Eternity is a long time to miss someone,” Nathan whispered.

“No wonder he’s so angry,” Ben breathed. “I’d be angry too.”

“Trust me, his anger with me is something I’ve earned.” Nathan rubbed his face wearily. “It’s nothing you need to worry about. Stop trying to figure it out.”

“Fine,” Ben sighed. “So you guys are so afraid of him because he’s full of memories?” Ben tilted his head curiously, trying to find the answer in Nathan’s ice blue eyes. All he found there was a distant kind of sadness.

“This is where it becomes hard to explain,” Nathan shifted again, and rubbed at his temples. Ben could have told him it wouldn’t ease the headache. That way only worked on tension ones, not the migraine ones. Ben’s Mom had every kind of headache, and Ben knew what to do for every one of them. But Nathan never asked.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” Ben shrugged half–heartedly. “You should probably go lie down.”

“I’m fine. Just trying to figure out the best way to convey this.” Nathan finally found the words he was looking for. “Those with this talent are known as the Whited Sepulchres.” His voice got so gentle when he said that. He sat near Samuel’s head, and his fingers drifted to Samuel’s brittle gray hair. “Beautiful tombs, filled with echoes of the dead. They have passed into human legend in many forms, each more terrifying than the last.”

Ben had heard the phrase before. He gulped past a lump in his throat. His grandfather’s stories teased at his mind, and brought back awful memories. He pushed the nightmares back into the dark, and tried to focus on Nathan instead.

Nathan looked distantly haunted as he went on. “We are creatures that do not change. Ever. When we are hurt, when something in us is lost to us, it remains ours— we just need time to heal, and we recover. Sometimes we can even reclaim what’s been taken from us.” He looked down at Samuel, and his voice turned oddly muted. “Although Samuel remains unchanged, he can add captured pieces of others to himself. They dwell within his spirit— forever, as far as I know, unless they are purged from him.” Nathan pushed himself up off the futon, and started towards the kitchen. “The practice is enough like change to seem unnatural and obscene to the rest of us.”

Ben frowned. “Wait, I don’t get it.” Nathan stopped in place, waiting as Ben sorted out his question. “When you talk about human beings changing, you seem like a fan of it. When you talk about how I can’t change anymore, you seem sad for me. So why is it a bad thing that Samuel can kind of change himself too? Isn’t it, like, a rare privilege?”

“It probably is,” Nathan answered quietly, without turning to face Ben. “After all, it was part of their design, so it’s as Father intended. It’s likely our own fault, that we never understood it.”

Ben pondered that. Even though he’d seen a lot, and seen a lot of angels being wrong, he still had a blind spot. He could think of angels as being evil, or even stupid, but never just plain wrong. He could see it right in front of him sometimes, but it still didn’t feel like it made sense. Angels were supposed to be perfect. Angels were forever. “Angels were made by God,” Ben blurted out. “How can they be wrong?”

“You were made by God too, Ben,” Nathan’s answer reached Ben gently. His voice was so soft, Ben felt as though the words carried through him rather than to him. “Sometimes I wonder if there is anything made which is not capable of being wrong.” Nathan lowered his head, and folded his arms across his chest. His voice lifted again. “Perhaps the problem was never in their talent, but in what they confronted. Perhaps the true fault lies in the fact that in the rest of us there was so much fear, revulsion, and hate to take in.”

Ben bit his lip, and scraped his teeth hard against the skin. He’d done it three times before he realized he was bleeding a little. He did his best to stop. He took a shaky breath. “Do you really think that’s what happened, Nathan? That they had to die because the rest of you couldn’t deal?”

Nathan shook his head, and resumed his steps down onto the carpet. “I can’t remember them, so I really can’t say. For whatever reason, they’re all gone, now. All but two.”

Ben watched Samuel sleep while Nathan messed around in the kitchen. It was a lot to take in. All but two. Who was the other one? Was Samuel lonely, having only one other person in all the world who could understand him?

So many worries crowded into Ben’s anxious mind. How many other kinds of angels were there that he’d never known about? How many monsters, how many legends? How could he tell the difference? Nathan was both of those too, wasn’t he? What was the Makhvet, really? What were so many people so afraid of, when they found out who Nathan really was?

Nathan came back with his own mug of tea. It wasn’t the same as Juno’s though. Ben could smell the raspberries in it before it even left the kitchen. Ben had a million more questions. He settled on one. He wasn’t sure if it was an okay question to ask though. He couldn’t figure out a way to say it that wouldn’t sound wrong.

“Whatever is running around on the hamster wheel in your head, spit it out and let it quit spinning.” Nathan blew across the tea, sending curls of raspberry steam in Ben’s direction. “You only get more annoying when you try to keep it bottled up.”

“What did he take from you, Nathan?” Ben shook a little, scared of the answer he might get to that question. “What did Samuel take that hurt him so badly?”

Ben expected Nathan to get mad at him. He expected one of those hard, annoyed stares. Instead Nathan’s face seemed to soften. Nathan tilted his head, and looked at Ben with what almost looked like it could become a smile. It never did, though. It just tugged at the corners of Nathan’s lips briefly, before settling into that neutral blank state the angel used to show before Nathan got hurt.

Ben hated that blank expression so much. His heart dropped in his chest. He didn’t need to see those eyes light to know that they would. He wasn’t surprised when a split set of voices answered him either.

“He struck at my wings.” Nathan’s shoulders hunched a little. Ben could see that through the curtain of auburn hiding his eyes. There was a particular shrug, a gesture that always suggested those wings to Ben even when he couldn’t see them. Ben could always imagine them bobbing a little with the motion.

“So?” Ben didn’t even try to hide how sullen his voice was now. He wanted Nathan’s voice back. Whole, and one, and close enough to human.

“I’m much older, and much stronger than he. There are about forty–three hundred or so between us, and that curve gets steep at the top.” Nathan sipped on his tea. He retreated from the window, and hung back in the wall’s shadow for a while. “I’m sure it was overwhelming for him. Especially in such an undeveloped brain. His own spirit is a lot for that body to take on its own. Adding mine…” That shrug again. Nathan took another, longer drink.

“So why’d he do it? You said he’s done it before. Wouldn’t he know better by now?”

That drew a short, sharp laugh from Nathan that almost spilled his tea. Nathan shook his head. “Knowing better is not that angel’s strong suit.”

“But what happened after the war? You guys fought together, why are you enemies now?”

Nathan shook his head. “We’re not enemies, Ben, not by far. He works for my boss.”

Ben blinked. “You mean God?”

“What?” Nathan blinked back. Amusement seemed to glue his split voice back together. “No, I mean Puavale.”

“Oh, yeah, the whole Gate thing.” Ben thought for a moment, putting the information together. He grinned. “They called him the Right Hand of the Gate. You said you fought for the Gate, right? So does that mean he, like, outranks you?”

Nathan shook his head, gesturing with the tea, “Oh, don’t even go down that road.” The blue glow in his eyes shrank down to their irises, and he grunted under his breath. “That ranking shit is for grimoires and wannabe Rosicrucians. If anything, we have levels of respect and chains of loyalty.”

“So what level are you?” Ben leaned forward, and tipped up his chin. “No, let me guess.” He grinned impishly. “You’re a level 80 Death Angel. With elite gold armor.”

Nathan made a small, scoffing sound before taking another drink. “I can’t even imagine a Heaven dreary enough that everyone was organized into ranks and platoons and hierarchies. And choirs, of all things. Choirs!”

“You guys are supposed to sing all the time! What’s wrong with choirs?” Ben stuck out his tongue.

“Don’t get me started,” Nathan shook his head. “I won’t live long enough to finish that rant.” He shifted his grip on the cup, to point a scolding finger at Ben. “Also, gold is heavy, soft, and useless for armor. You can do better. What happened to first period Science, brat?”

“Your generation invented those dungeon games,” Ben complained. “All the armor is weird and stupid.” Then it dawned on him, what he was talking about. He didn’t want to let it show, how stupid he felt talking about childhood stuff. He bit his lip and stammered. “You don’t know anything about human fun. Angels are so boring.” He hoped he sounded more convincing than he felt.

“Fun is not my priority.” Nathan walked back across the living room, ascending the three short steps to the hardwood platform where Samuel laid on the futon. “Anyway. The Gate is nothing more than the people who fought alongside Puavale. We had to, when the war threatened to spill inside a place that was special to all of us. We’ve hung together, since.” He padded over to the futon, without looking down at Ben. “It’s not a military order or a ranking system. It’s just something we carry with us. It describes what we’ve done. We wear it as a badge of honor. Some respect it. Others resent us for it. It was the hardest, most heart–rending battle of the first war, and the one that decided it.”

Ben nodded. A shift in topic eased his tension. For once he was even grateful that Nathan barely listened to him.

Nathan stood over Samuel, his tea idly steaming in his left hand. “This is Puavale’s aryha,” Nathan said softly. “Those who follow Puavale know that Samuel’s chosen Puavale and devoted himself completely to the trust between them. Puavale’s accepted that of him. So how he ‘ranks’ would depend on what Puavale’s trust means to whomever is doing the ranking.”

Ben nodded. “Sounds complicated.”

“It isn’t really,” Nathan shrugged a little. “Only if you want to pin labels on us, and keep track of who trumps who. And in our case, that gets even more tricky.” He gestured to Samuel with his mug, “In terms of our virtues, we trump each other.”

“How does that work?” Nathan almost never answered Ben’s questions about virtues, the way an angel worked inside. Ben held his breath, hoping this one would slip by.

“His virtue, how does it translate…” Nathan pinched the bridge of his nose again. “I’ll take a crack at it.” He tilted his head a little, and intoned, “In the calm before the battle, he looks with clear eyes, and sees the timing of every blow.” Nathan shook his head. “Something like that. Basically he takes advantage of timing by being a step or two ahead of the rhythm. He strikes at the precise time and place it will be most devastating.”

“Right, I get it so far. So how do you trump that?” Ben did his best to look bored. How many of these questions was he going to get away with?

“Well, predictability goes hand in hand with strategy. I, as Acceptance, have very little pre–ordained action.” A slow, menacing smile briefly haunted Nathan’s lips. “I rarely bother with strategy unless I have to coordinate with others. I don’t try to plan out the situation as I go. I accept it as it is and deal with it, so I’m really difficult to foretell.”

Ben could see that. He’d seen Nathan fight for years now, and he couldn’t really describe a way the angel approached things. He’d seen Nathan fight with a trash can lid, a car, a pool cue, rebar, and nothing at all but his angel’s strength, but he couldn’t really remember seeing the exact same thing twice. He couldn’t really find anything but superficial similarities between those memories. Whatever was there, Nathan would use it somehow. That’s why it had been so weird for Ben, when Nathan didn’t pick up anything in the museum.

Nathan gazed down at Samuel, his tea briefly forgotten. “If he’s trying to read me on the fly, or in the moments of peace between conflicts, he gets very little but his own reflection. The moment I find a way to start a chain of events he couldn’t see, his advantage is gone.”

“But you couldn’t do that in the museum. You barely did anything at all.”

Nathan smiled a little. He nodded, then continued. “The flip side of that dynamic. If he gets the chance to really look ahead and lay out a plan, my virtue works for him.” He took another sip. “Water splashes everywhere if you drop it on the ground. Carve a deep enough path for it, though, and it does exactly as it’s expected to.” He shook his head. “Surrounded by careful planning, I become the easiest mark there is— so long as you can actually plan for everything.”

“Wow,” Ben looked down at Samuel too. “So he can really own you.”

Nathan shrugged, and finished off his tea. “It really depends on who gets control of the situation first.” Nathan set the mug down on the windowsill. “He had it. He had me.” Nathan’s eyes slipped from Samuel to Ben. “But for some reason, he didn’t see you before the fight. So any action you took could tip events away from his preparations.”

Ben couldn’t help grinning at that. “So,” he said, a sly grin pulling at his lips, “I guess you could say I…”

“I know where you’re going with that, but no,” Nathan said flatly, turning his attention back to Samuel. “It was probably the thing inside you.”

“Yeah,” Ben’s chin dropped, and his hair swung in clumps across his face. There was still blood in it. Unlike the angels, his healing didn’t always consume the blood on and around him. He just seemed to rebuild himself from inside. Ben wanted to ask why that was different for him than for the angels, but there were so many questions floating in his head. This was a rare opportunity for answers. Another question was more important to Ben right now.

“Nathan, why—”

A moan from beside Ben interrupted him. Samuel twisted in place, and curled in on himself. “… kathai… hu… ishediu…” Samuel’s eyes were squeezed shut. Painful groans split into harmonies that whispered beneath his words.

Nathan dropped to one knee beside the futon, near Samuel’s head. “I’m sorry, Avaue.” His hand stretched out to Samuel’s cheek, “I was unprepared. There are many experiences I would not have shared with you.”

Samuel slapped Nathan’s hand away. “Traitor!” He spat. A wet glob, mucus mixed with blood, hit Nathan’s shirt squarely. “How could you!”

Nathan took that quietly. He waited there, on his knee, and tipped his chin down.

“Your memories only make it worse!” The little boy’s body shivered. Samuel’s multitonal voice poured out of it with barely a trace of natural sound. “Your blood betrays you!”

“Let me explain, Avaue, please…” Ben had never heard Nathan beg anyone for anything before.

Samuel’s features contorted. He screamed as though every word he spoke cut him more deeply than the last. “How could you choose that little skin–sack over my Esa?!”

Ben jumped back from the futon. That question hit him in the pit of his stomach, and knocked the breath out of his body. His eyes went wide. They searched for Nathan’s, searched for answers there again. Ben shook violently. It felt like the floor was about to fall out from under him. He was sure the whole world might just collapse underneath him at any moment.

Ben couldn’t take the silence. He couldn’t take the tension. He felt like if it went on another moment, it would break him in half. He thought about the night underground, how everything got better if he could just see those ice blue eyes. Not just their light, but the mind behind them, the angel that watched over him. Terror clawed at Ben, and scraped the sense out of him from inside. He couldn’t think. All he could do was feel, and there was way too much to feel. He couldn’t do it alone. All the faith left in Ben needed to know those eyes were still looking back. All he needed was to know those eyes still saw him. He needed that so much.

But he didn’t see them right now. They were turned down toward the floor. They wouldn’t look back at him.

Nathan didn’t look at Ben at all.

Part Eight


That name had been weighing on Ben’s heart for so many years. He knew that it had. He couldn’t remember the last time he thought about it, though, or said it aloud. He couldn’t have forgotten! Every day he lived now was because of Esa. The only thing keeping Nathan from kicking Ben out of his body was the deal he’d struck to keep Esa safe.

My Esa!

All these years, May had been teaching him about the careful balance struck between angels. How an Aspect brought peace, direction and balance to her Image, and the Image protected her with utter, blind faith. Ben still didn’t understand it completely. He knew it wasn’t something he could fit into words like ‘love’ or ‘duty,’ though there was plenty of both.

He’d known Esa was an Aspect. He had to have known there was an Image out there, looking for her. But nobody can find anything you’ve hidden, Ben thought, his body going numb.

Yes. And now her Image seeks to undo everything I’ve done for you.

“Believe me or not, Avaue, but I did no such thing.” Nathan didn’t lift his head. He remained there, bowed, waiting patiently.

“Maksan!” Samuel snapped. Ben’s spine shook, and the translation bubbled eagerly up his nerves. Words exploded in silvery showers in the back of his mind. “Filthy liar!” Ben held his head, and tried to shut out the sound. It didn’t matter. The spirit carried Samuel’s hatred straight through Ben’s wounded soul when the next hiss came. “I’ll tear that lying tongue from your head!”

“No you won’t!” Juno’s split voice thundered from the hallway. He stood, green eyes blazing, at the edge of the living room carpet. “Not in my May’s home you won’t!” No one was bothering with English anymore. Ben could hear wings stirring, threatening at the edge of perception.

“Esa’s blood is on his hands,” Samuel sank back, sitting on the futon. His pale eyes glared up at Nathan, their fire undimmed. “Her cries woke me from my life. They rend me piece from piece every moment she is in pain!” Samuel’s body quaked, rage seething through his clipped tones. “How could you leave her for an instant to the mercy of the worms who took her from safety?”

“She should have been safe,” Nathan insisted, but Samuel’s shout cut through.

“You left her to them!” Samuel jabbed an accusing finger at Ben, “How could you go on with your precious life for a heartbeat, knowing you had left a sister in enemy clutches?” Samuel dropped his hands to the futon. He squeezed the blankets, his knuckles going pure white. “For every beat her heart took in agony, I promise you a century of torment!”

Nathan’s voice shifted, splitting into harmonies beneath the sound as he spoke. “Do what you will once my work here is done. But know that I have taken on a greater burden to preserve her life.”

Ben held his breath. He didn’t want to start hyperventilating. Not now. His heart felt like it was going to rip itself apart, it was beating so fast. The room seemed so much bigger and so much smaller than it had been a minute ago. It was so far to the door, but he was so close to the angry angels! Then there were the sparks again, that beautiful, awful voice running up his spine. Over and over its shivers exploded into words that seized his brain.

You are the greater burden.

Like anybody needed to tell him. Ben knew he’d been fooling himself. He’d always known he was a burden. He’d always be a reminder of what the thing inside him had done, to trap the angel into taking care of him. How could he think anything about that would change? Nathan was an angel. Angels never changed.

“Yes,” Nathan continued, his voice quieter now. “She is in pain, but she is also protected. Her pain is safeguarded by mine.”

Ben tried to count to ten, and wondered just how stupid he really was. Pain. All he ever brought Nathan was pain. Ben literally led Nathan into the trap that ruined his life and wrecked his angel’s strength. Why wouldn’t Nathan hate him? Ben eased away from the window, and tried to escape to the guest bedroom. It seemed like the door was miles and miles away, but he had to get there.

“Yes, your deal,” Samuel hissed. “How terrible for you, to have to endure life prolonged for your little monkey pet! Ben tried to shut the voice out. He tried to set his body in motion. Maybe he could make it to the dark, to the safety of the guest room. “Tell me,” Samuel seethed, “Is moving air the only trick it knows? Or have you taught it to fetch as well?”

Ben flushed. All his shame and anxiety reached critical mass, and flared over into anger. He turned in place, and yelled, “Hey! I—”

“Puua nim chayyas wo issikeh maast!” Samuel’s words hit Ben and shut his mouth. Shock left Ben too numb for the spirit’s translation. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t make a sound. He couldn’t even think about responding to the words in his head. Trying to filled him with cold, inexpressible terror. An awful sick feeling flooded up from Ben’s stomach, choking in his throat.

Samuel turned his attention away from Ben, but Ben still couldn’t find the courage to move. Panic could do this to him, sometimes, and he tried to remind himself of that. It didn’t help. His body just wouldn’t do what he told it to. He felt rooted in place, like his feet were too scared to turn and close the last few steps towards the door. Ben fought for calm. Slowly the angelic speech started making sense to him again.

“We will both be freed of our torments soon,” Samuel practically spat the words at Nathan. “I came to take her location from you, and I have taken it. Nothing will stand in my way until she is freed. Not you. Not your pet. Not Heaven itself.”

When Nathan answered, his voice was gentle again. That hurt so much! Ben couldn’t stand how gentle the angel’s voice was, how soothing and filled with comfort. It hurt even more because of what the angel said. “I have no wish to stand against you. In fact, I welcome your help. I hoped your peace would last longer before waking, yet I waited for this day.”

Ben begged his feet to move. He begged his heart to beat. He hated being so helpless that he couldn’t even cry.

Do you hear that? He can’t wait to be rid of you. I told you. He will never care about you. He wants you to die.

Ben finally regained control of his feet. He ran, shoving his way past Reikha. He finally got to the sliding door and ducked inside. Ben flung himself on the bed and burst into tears. They could probably hear him out in the living room, but Ben was too exhausted and in too much pain to care.

Someone’s shadow fell across the bed. Reikha whispered something Ben didn’t understand, and slid the door closed. Darkness finally fell over the room.

Ben curled up and pulled the blankets over him. One pillow had a dent in it, and smelled of violets. Ben tore it off the bed and threw it at the door, before burying his face in the other pillow to muffle his sobs. His body shook, and he grabbed at the mattress to stop it. As he lay there wailing into goose down, he regretted throwing something in May’s house— but he didn’t know what to do about that. He tried to choke down his sobs. He apologized to her silently, hoping with all his heart that it would reach her.

“It’s all right, Ben. I understand.” May’s voice was so weak! Ben barely heard it. She always moved so quietly, so gracefully. She was sitting in the big chair by the room’s divider screen. She must have been sitting there watching over Nathan, the way she had when Nathan was recovering last winter.

Ben hadn’t seen May go into the guest room. Ben had been so focused on the black–winged angel, he hadn’t noticed anything going on around him. So focused on myself, too. He’d missed May so much, yet he’d missed the chance to say hello to her when she came out of her room.

Ben sat up in bed, and let his chin fall towards his chest. He wanted to be better than this when he got to see May. Everything about her was gentle. It was so unfair that she was sick. She was the only person Ben really wanted to see every day. If Juno didn’t hate him, he’d come over and beg to do chores or help out, just so she could smile at him. She was the nicest person he’d ever met, ever.

Ben didn’t want her to see him bawling like a baby, but he was still so glad she was here. He tried to get hold of himself enough to lift his head and thank her like he should. He swiped at his face with his palms, and rubbed them on his jeans. He made himself look up.

May looked as beautiful as she had all those years ago, the first time she’d startled him in this room. Maybe a little more tired— but to Ben, that didn’t matter. Her big blue eyes brought a soft glow that parted the gloom, and lit her rounded cheeks. Her light sent blue shimmers down the green embroidered silk dress she wore, and threw glints into the metal chopsticks holding up her blonde hair. Her skin wasn’t quite as pale as Nathan’s. It had a rosier glow even under that frosted light. As Ben’s eyes adjusted, he saw her smile. It was such a sad smile!

“Are you okay out of bed?” Ben sat up, and put his back against the wall. “I’m so sorry for how I came in. I was loud. I just…” A sob forced its way out of him, and Ben tried to pull himself back together. He drew his knees up toward his chest, and hugged them as close as he could. “It’s been a really bad day.”

“I know.” May wrung her pale hands, and looked down at them. “I heard. I’m sorry I couldn’t intervene.” She sighed, and looked toward the door. Worry pulled her soft features so tight, it broke Ben’s heart all over again. “Samuel is beyond anyone’s reach, right now.” She rose from the chair, and took a few steps toward the sliding door.

“I don’t get it…” Ben let a few more sobs out, and tried to wipe his eyes, but the tears were coming so quickly that it was just pointless to try. “He wasn’t like this in my dreams. Ever. He wasn’t like this at all.”

May stopped at that, and turned back to search Ben’s expression. She approached the bed instead. “Well, I don’t know what you dreamed,” May dropped into a crouch, so she could see Ben eye to eye. “But I can’t remember a time Esa was ever taken from Samuel. So I don’t know if he’s ever been like this before.” Her pale hand curled into the fabric over her chest, and pulled it into a trembling fist. Her voice choked off a little as she whispered. “I can’t imagine what my Juno would be like if he couldn’t reach me at all.” Her voice dropped. “It’s been terrible enough, when life forced us apart.”

“I thought…” Ben wiped his eyes again, “I thought no matter where you were, you guys were always connected.” He wished he had something to blow his nose on, but no way was he going to let May get it for him. He tried to snuffle it all back in. “Nathan said it wasn’t as simple as I thought. He told me you guys don’t even always live in the same place during a life. As long as you can feel each other safe and strong somewhere in the world, then you’re okay. You protect each other anyway.”

“It’s true,” May smiled gently. Her expression warmed. “Even though it hurts to be apart, we can always be strong for each other.” She tilted her head slightly, and ticked her tongue gently against her teeth. “You learn so much. You soak up everything you’re told, don’t you? You must have done wonderfully in school.”

“I hated school,” Ben confessed. “Nobody liked me, and I hated everybody.” Wow. He’d never said it out loud before. Those problems seemed like such huge monumental things, when they were happening. They seemed life–ending. Then Ben’s life really ended, and he started finding out how big problems could really be. He felt stupid about complaining to her, especially since hearing it seemed to make her sad.

“A lot of people grow up lonely these days,” May said softly, her eyes lowering. The room got darker for their downturned gaze. “A childhood spent unloved, unprotected.” She started to reach for Ben’s hand, but then pulled hers back. “That makes it hard for someone to believe anyone caring about them is real.”

Ben nodded. He couldn’t help looking at her withdrawn hand. He ached, but he knew that was selfish of him. It just would have been nice to get a little contact right now. It didn’t have to be a hug. It could be a pat on the head. A little reassurance that anybody at all still cared that he was sad. Ben felt guilty for that thought. She was being so nice to him, and here he was complaining inside that it wasn’t more.

“It’s so hard for anyone to believe they’re loved after living like that.” May sighed softly. Her shoulders pulled in a little. “Sometimes it’s easier to run away, isn’t it? It’s scary to take the chance that it will all fall apart and leave you alone again.” She folded her hands on her knees. “Sometimes it’s hard to take any chances at all.”

“I took chances all the time,” Ben ducked his head back into his crossed arms, and let out a few more wrenching sobs. “All I ever did was try, I really did!”

“Oh, I know you did!” May said it quickly, her slender brows drawing up and together as she leaned a little closer. “That’s not what I’m saying. Ben, I—”

The door slid open, throwing Nathan’s shadow across Ben’s curled–up form. “Come on,” Nathan said flatly, “We’re leaving.”

“But, Nathan, I just started talking to—”

“You heard me. Get. Your. Shit.” Nathan beckoned impatiently. “Anything you leave here, don’t expect to get it back.” He headed straight for the chair on the other side of the room, where May had been sitting. His coat lay over the back of it. He grabbed it and yanked it free.

May looked up at Nathan as he stalked by. Her soft blue eyes shone a little brighter. She rose slowly from her crouch. “I wish you didn’t have to go.” She spoke to Nathan as he slipped the coat over his shoulders. Her voice was so sweet, and so sad. “It would be so much better, if you two would just talk.”

Nathan didn’t look at her. He didn’t respond. He just tugged the coat to straighten its collar, and left as abruptly as he’d arrived.

A sigh escaped May. Ben hated that sound, because he’d made it before. It was the quick, sharp kind of sigh Ben knew only came from a stab in the heart. That sound made Ben hate Nathan just a little bit more.

“Don’t worry,” Ben pushed away from the wall, and slid off the bed. “I already know what he’d say.” He shrugged off the thought. “I’d better go.” He gave May plenty of room as he left. She looked like she needed it. Ben had folded in on himself like that many times, especially when talking to that particular angel.

May didn’t say anything. She just pulled her right hand to her mouth. Her left curled slowly, grabbing the embroidery near the center of her belly. She closed her eyes, and a tear slid down her cheek. Ben looked away. He didn’t want to make her feel any worse by watching her cry. The best thing he could do was get away, and stop making her sad.

It was hard, though, to leave the room. It could be the last time, couldn’t it? Ben looked back once he got to the door.

“It’ll be OK. Like I told you. I was ready to go years ago. I just…” Ben wiped fresh tears away angrily, resenting them for showing up now. He didn’t want to make this about him. He might never see her again. She always made him feel better. The least he could do was try to make her feel a little better too. He tried to force a smile, and shrugged. “I just got sidetracked, is all.”

“Don’t give up, Ben,” May whispered. Her pale hands met at her chest, and she clasped them there. “Don’t ever give up before you have to!” Her voice sounded even weaker, now. Ben felt so guilty for getting her in the middle of this. He got halfway out the door before he thought of anything to say.

“I never do,” Ben tried to smile. “I get in all kinds of trouble that way.” A quick glance to the side, and Ben knew he was out of time. He wanted to say more, but Nathan was already pulling on his boots. The look Nathan shot Ben made it clear that time had run out. Ben turned back to May one more time. “Thanks, and… take care, OK?”

It seemed like a really stupid thing to say to a sick person, but Ben just wanted to get away before he made anything any worse. Nathan charging in and dragging him out by the shirt collar would definitely make everything worse.

Ben stepped into his sneakers, the same way he’d slipped out of them. The laces were still tied. He bent over and tugged on the backs of the shoes to free them from his heels. He followed the sweep of Nathan’s coat. Samuel was already in the hall, slipping into the stairwell. Nathan hit the elevator button. Nobody said any goodbyes. Ben turned back, to offer some. Juno held the front door, watching them go. Ben opened his mouth, but Juno just shut the door.

The elevator dinged. Nathan was inside and hitting the button before Ben could react. Ben ran for the elevator, and stuck his hand in to stop the doors. Nathan didn’t help him. The angel was just standing at the back of the elevator, with his arms crossed across his chest. Nathan’s eyes had filled up edge to edge with ice blue light. Ben guessed that the real Nathan probably wasn’t seeing him anymore. Bitterness rose in Ben’s throat. Assuming he ever did.

Ben bit his lip. He wasn’t going to start sobbing again. Not here, not now. His chin tilted forward. His clumped–up hair threw an auburn curtain across tear streaks and puffy eyes. He remembered a promise he’d made himself, back when his biggest problems were loneliness and bullies and… well what had really changed? The bullies just got bigger. Every year the bullies got bigger. Now they just had wings.

Ben promised himself again. This time he was determined to keep his promise.

Nobody got to see him break down. Nobody got to see him weak. Nobody got to see him cry.


Never again.

Part Nine

It was quiet. It had been quiet since they left Juno’s. Ben had gone straight to his room. That worked well for Nathan. He couldn’t really afford to split his attention. A shower and a change of clothes had taken long enough. He had to catch up with Samuel. He had no idea what was coming down the pipe after that.

Nathan brushed the glass out of his coat. The little wastebasket resting against his shin was a small target. Nathan did his best to get the debris into it. He didn’t have time to be careful, though he would have liked to. He rubbed his fingers into the cream–colored lining a little. It was thinner than ever.

This coat had taken quite a lot of beatings in its time. Unlike him, it bore all the scars of its encounters. Like him, it looked differently from afar than under close inspection. Only a familiar eye could see these details from any distance: the tiny repairs, the subtle unevenness and painstaking stitching. The newest stitches couldn’t compare to the subtlety and strength of the eldest repairs. At this rate, they likely never would.

Nathan turned the coat over. There were so many little mends, so many patches sewn from between the lining and the original. Hell, the lining itself had been replaced so many times… if he was honest with himself, there was probably very little of the original coat left in his hands.

He wore it in any weather. He could accept being a little too warm. The familiar weight across his shoulders, the swish behind him— these things were comforting. They helped him remember. They helped him forget.

Nathan pulled the coat on, and headed for the hallway. He patted the pockets down, reassuring himself that he’d gotten everything he’d meant to from the master bedroom. He turned left instead of right, heading for the boy’s room rather than his own.

Nathan stood outside Ben’s door for a moment, wondering what the hell he was going to say. It seemed like something ought to be said, at a time like this.

A soft, choked sob soaked through the door. A few sharp sniffles followed, and a long, muffled cry.

Nathan’s hand lifted to the door— then his mind caught up to him, and stopped the gesture in place.

Best to leave it be.

Nathan turned back. As he left the hall, he slowed. He stopped at the corkboard next to the door. A few notes were gathering dust there. He lingered, reading the ones that caught his eye.

These were notes to Ben. They were acknowledgments of chores well done, which neither of them had taken down. They were questions from Ben, with terse answers pinned beneath them. They were passing asides letting Ben know when Nathan would be back, or where he was going. They were trivialities, really, yet they’d been sitting here for months.

Nathan cast a guilty look back down the hall, then shook his head. He took the notes down. Every last one of them. He tossed them in the wastebasket, and grabbed a pen to write a new one.

‘Dinner’s in the fridge. Gone for the night.’ He pinned it to the corkboard, and locked the door behind him.

Nathan took the stairs. His steps echoed, sharp raps that rang from floor to floor. The rhythm made his path a little easier to follow. One step in front of the other. That was how things got done.

Reikha’s chocolate brown sedan was still idling in front of the building. The young Image looked up quickly as Nathan arrived, and tucked his smartphone away.

Those things were becoming irritatingly pervasive. Just what the world needed. Cameras everywhere. Cameras that couldn’t be blanked by a quick blast of background radiation, too. The ever–seeing eyes mounted on buildings and service poles were hard enough to deal with. Idiots with facetube pages were one major headache too many.

Nathan slipped into the front passenger’s seat, and shut the door behind him. Reikha quickly shut the music off. A band with some whiny angels in it, from what little reached Nathan.

Another complication of modern life. Music came naturally to angels, especially Images. Humanity attributed just about anything spiritual in music to drugs, and rarely noticed the differences between angelic music and their own. Often, much of the message in an angel’s song wasn’t in the lyrics, but in the music itself. Tonal phrases, combinations of notes, these said more to Nathan than anything chattered into the microphones. The radio could be a forum for heaven’s messengers to safely air their grievances. Many took the opportunity and ran with it. Nathan rarely listened. He had troubles of his own.

Nathan tried to pull his thoughts together. Retreat into these cranky musings was an indulgence he couldn’t afford tonight. “Here’s the address,” Nathan handed Reikha a folded–up slip of paper. He didn’t feel like saying it aloud. “You can drop me off there.”

“Thank you, Malavai.”

Nathan tried not to clench his jaw at the familiarity. He wasn’t going to repeat his admonishment. That had been a failure of temper anyhow. This little brother meant well. They pulled away from the curb.

“I want to thank you for coming to my aid, in the museum,” Reikha went on. “I’m terribly sorry for how it turned out.”

“I’m the reason your haven’s trashed,” Nathan shrugged. “Seems a little backwards, you apologizing to me for it.”

“We’re the ones who failed.” Reikha sighed. “We did our best to protect it, but fell short.” Reikha stopped to signal a turn. “We warded it against all manner of intrusion. Even the windows were warded against damage, and the influence of spirit.”

Nathan’s eyebrow ticked a little at that. No wonder the push he’d given the stanchion had fizzled. “Next time you might want to include the roof, the vents, and skylights.” That was one thing the younger Malakhim had in common with humanity. They never thought, ‘up.’

“We will. I swear that we will.” So heavily said. So deeply remorseful.

“Look,” Nathan sighed. “Whatever vulnerability you had, Samuel would have found it. You were just a natural target. You were a giant well of spiritual influence wrapped around an arsenal.” Nathan pushed a stray bit of hair off his cheek, and tucked it absently behind his ear. “An arsenal he added to, systematically, until he’d set the perfect trap.”

“The special collection.” Reikha’s hands tightened on the wheel. “Our excitement and our panic set his trap for him, Malavai.”

The kid was just determined to take responsibility. Nathan’s mouth pressed into a thin, tight line. He accepted Reikha’s choice. It saved him the trouble of explaining. The special collection was doubtless one of many ways Samuel pushed the circumstances into place. The time, patience, and hatred it took to collect so much while under so much pressure spoke to the depths of Samuel’s suffering.

Nathan looked out the window, but his reflection distracted him. His ice blue eyes shone back at him, from a face he didn’t always recognize. The shimmering blue… whatever the fuck those were… things hanging off his temples irritated him. They were showy and obvious. They were incongruous with the version of himself he remembered. Plus they just got in his fucking way.

“If you don’t mind my asking, M— uh, sir…” Reikha seemed to have picked up on his reaction to endearments at last. “What will we do, when we get there?” Hesitation. A flick of the turn signal, and then its ticking. “I’m not of the Gate. I don’t really understand any of what’s going on.”

“This isn’t about the Gate, abaie.” Nathan closed his eyes. “This is between he and I.” The diminutive form of ‘baby brother’ was friendlier than he’d like it to be, but it reinforced the vast difference between he and this angel. Perhaps that would help get the little one to back off the topic.

“Of course,” Reikha somehow managed to look even more uncomfortable. “Still, I involved myself,” he insisted. “I delivered you into—”

“You sought help.” Nathan cut the younger angel off mid–sentence. “It was predictable because it was the right choice to make. Samuel saw it because his thieving allies had taken great pains to make sure it was the only choice you could make. It’s not something you need to make up to me.”

The car rolled to a stop, and Reikha lowered his head. His hands gripped the steering wheel a little tighter. “I hid, sir. I was afraid.”

“If you weren’t, something would be seriously wrong with you.” Nathan sighed. He could feel the little one’s struggle tugging on him. His virtue was needed here. He looked at the window, at the face staring back at him. His voice gentled, as he sank into his role.

“You also know me by a popular name. So you know my nature.” Nathan shifted to Malakhrit. His own words would better reach that little spirit beneath all its confusion. “They brand me The Death for a reason. I fight without pity. I do not fight to show force, nor to spar. I seldom stay my hand. Sometimes I am what is needed. In those times, you are right to be afraid.”

“I know that you protect us,” Reikha’s voice broke a little over the statement, shame weighing down the young one’s heart. Reikha’s Malakhrit was simple, and halting, but got his meaning across. “I won’t deny your reputation is terrifying. Still, there is nothing in me that doubts you have protected us always, and protect us still.”

“I do what needs to be done,” Nathan said flatly. “For no cause, no leaders, no gods,” he echoed, the familiar words easing the unrest in him. “It serves nothing to make a hero of me, and a traitor of yourself. We are all heroes and traitors in someone’s eyes.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Reikha sighed, easing his grip on the steering wheel slightly. He was struggling for words, and straining to understand. Nathan switched back to English to answer him.

“You may have been frightened of my little brother for the wrong reasons, but you were right to be frightened. Samuel stands at the right hand of the Undying.” Nathan’s wounds echoed deeply rooted loss, and still tore at his battered spirit. The last blow had taken even more from him than he’d expected it to. “He wounds spirit as easily as flesh, and he is maddened by the captivity of his alqa.”

Nathan gave that a moment to sink in, then, “Do you understand yet? We wouldn’t have noticed, if we’d shredded you to nothing between us.”

“I should have tried.”

Nathan scoffed a little, the absurdity of Reikha’s guilt punctuated by the sound. “Stepping into that fight would have been idiotic. That’s not bravery. That is pointless vanity.” Nathan stopped to catch the little brother’s eyes, and drill his point into them. “So is this debt to me you’ve created.”

Nathan could feel his words reaching the younger Image. As they did, the tight coil of resistance they met began to unwind. Nathan didn’t put much influence behind the message. He didn’t need to. The words were enough. The cry from Reikha’s heart, begging to accept his own actions, subsided. The answering ache within Nathan began to quell, in response. The gnawing drive of virtue lay quiet, finally satisfied. For now, his spirit loosed its grip on his mind.

That wouldn’t last. Not tonight.

“You’re right,” Reikha nodded. “Of course you’re right.” Reikha turned his gray–blue eyes gratefully to the angel. “I consider it an honor, sir, to have—”

“It’s really not.” Nathan wasn’t interested in gratitude right now. He opened the car door, and stepped out. “Go pick up the pieces of your sanctuary.” He could practically hear Ben’s echo to that, ‘The many, many pieces.’ He shook off the thought. He’d grown far too complacent in his mortal life. He’d doubtless pay for it now.

“Ayyal–nim baleo, Malavai.” I hope you will walk your path in light/May the light upon your path guide your travels, most exalted brother. It was a pretty turn of phrase. Hard for his living mind to settle on a translation, because it was meant to convey both meanings. It sounded familiar. A slogan, perhaps, or some other nicety.

“Makit alaeo,” Nathan’s answer was far more simple, and served as parting. I would have you stand against darkness. Nathan closed the car door, and stepped onto the curb. Perhaps the bidding would help bolster Reikha’s spirit. This was the wrong era, the wrong city to be so easily discouraged.

Nathan pulled his coat around him a little tighter, and walked up the street. Finally the car passed beside him, and rolled away.

The address he’d given Reikha was a few blocks from his actual destination. Nathan wanted to give himself time to prepare. Samuel had already made his opinion of Nathan painfully clear. Only the Makhvet would get through to him right now. Samuel had literally cut past this human shell to get his answers from what lay within. Only what lay within would serve.

One step in front of the other, he fell into the rhythm again. Bit by bit, Nathan tried to let go. A deep breath, held tight in his chest. Then a slow exhalation. It helped, but not enough.

It had been a long time, a very long time, since he’d been possessed completely by the presence inside him for any length of time. In dire moments, the angel within would well up, and fill him with its power. It made him feel more vividly and entirely himself, and at the same time, made everything about the Nathan he knew feel frail and unreal. It left him feeling like an imaginary creature dreamed up by a soulless, timeless mind.

Nathan made a small, frustrated sound under his breath. Of course he felt so. That’s what Nathan was. He had no existence independent of the angel. That spirit had always lain dormant, sustaining him since long before birth. This body had always housed a trespasser amongst humanity, laying in wait where a soul would otherwise have taken root. He was the angel’s present human face. Nathan was nothing but the latest in a long line of roles. He’d long ago accepted that fact.

It didn’t make being reminded any less unpleasant.

The buildings were turning from commercial to residential now. Only a few houses from where Esa’s townhouse stood empty, waiting forlornly for her return. He had deliberately taken the southward route, to avoid too many familiar places.

Nathan approached a streetlight, and knew the stain beneath it. The iron had long since oxidized, and faded out of the pavement. Rains and snow, along with a few brave insects, had long since pushed remnants of flesh out of tiny pores in the asphalt. The stain of a person’s torment had a lot more staying power than either. So did that faint echo, the lingering presence of an aggressor that…

Nathan closed his eyes. His heart clenched, crushing the breath out of him. He couldn’t think of it. He didn’t dare. Even the cold, inhuman presence within him refused to dwell on it. Even the Makhvet refused to consider what pushed at the edges of his perception. Foolish thoughts in an imaginary mind. Impossible. If these things are true, nothing is true.

Nathan shook off the moment. He stepped over that stain, and approached the house that had once been Esa’s. White fire surrounded the house, visible only to eyes that knew how to seek it. It chased itself around the property. It left the tree beside Samuel unscathed, licking harmlessly past its overhanging boughs. As with any spiritual fire at rest, it consumed nothing— nor was it consumed.

Samuel stood in the midst of that flame. Pale licks of fire bowed away from him. The flames discolored where they drifted too near. Samuel stood in frail communion with this blaze, drawing it higher and higher near his little body though it sought to flee away. Wisps of his black wings drifted in and out of sight. Curls of light licked affectionately up his dark feathers. These embers darkened and discolored, but did Samuel no harm.

Nathan felt his own wings stir, curling forward in answer to the posture Samuel’s had taken. There was such pain bearing those shimmering struts down. Samuel’s black feathers drifted raggedly, held loosely by a disordered heart. Delicate wing–bones tried to splay the spans between them, but involuntarily tucked back at their most vulnerable places.

The sight spoke to Nathan of despair. Some distant struggle in himself, already forgotten, began to melt away. None of that mattered, right now. Samuel was in need.

The blaze around Samuel flared, its white hues giving way to reds and oranges. Samuel’s wings slicked down. Their upper knuckles hunched forward over his shoulders. He turned, and fixed Nathan with a furious glare. The irises of his eyes still struggled with shades of ice blue, their near–white tint spoiled by darker hues. It was a sign of Samuel’s burden, an outward display of inner pain.

“Moduwn adeiz irtuatzi?” Samuel demanded. These harsh words settled into Nathan’s heart, and he felt their meaning land. ‘Why the hell do you appear here, wretch that you are?’

“This trail is cold.” Nathan responded in Malakhrit without further thought. The pain in Samuel’s words brought clarity, and drove all else away. His broad wings spread out and dipped low. He folded them back in surrender, the longest feathers crossing each other behind him. “I know where it leads.”

Samuel’s right hand bunched into a fist. His slender arm tensed, shaking beneath the strain. “You…” He growled, “There is nothing you have that I want. Nothing you can offer me will barter away an instant of the pain I’ve promised you.”

Nathan nodded. His voice lilted softly on the night air, approaching Samuel as gently as he did. “I don’t intend it to.” He opened his arms to Samuel. The upper knuckles of his wings opened outward slightly with the gesture, though they were still pulled low and back. “When have I ever refused my fate?”

Samuel remained unmoved, his wings still hunched aggressively. “I should have let Khalif devour you,” he seethed.

“Perhaps you should have,” Nathan conceded, taking a step closer. He stopped beside the tree–trunk, and sought Samuel’s troubled eyes. “But you didn’t. So here we are.”

“Be somewhere else,” Samuel snapped, and stepped away. He turned to approach the steps, his wings relaxing only a little as he moved. The tips of his longest feathers were edged in gray. They crumbled off, bit by bit, as the angel walked.

“I wonder,” Nathan’s words stopped Samuel, but the black–winged angel did not turn around. “Have you taken enough of me that it pains you not to accept my help?”

Samuel’s flinch was slight, but the sheen on his feathers sent the movement rippling down the length of his wings. They settled quickly. “I’ve borne worse pain.” He started up the steps again. “I can endure far more than you.”

Nathan made no move to follow. He stood beside the tree, every bit as patient. In the doorway, Samuel froze. Crossing this threshold seemed to be too much for him to bear. Samuel leaned against the door–frame, and shuddered, his breathing ragged.

“I stood here,” Samuel whispered. “Free of this cloying flesh, free of this world’s suffocating grip. As myself, I stood here, invisible to their eyes.” He closed his eyes, and clutched hard at the doorframe for support. “I traced my protections around her home, and rallied the Ophanim I trusted to tend to her. I swore them to stand guard over her for as long as she would live.” His voice broke, and harmonies underpinned the pain in that sound. “I left her here in safety, because my vessel failed me before we could meet.”

“I was barely aware of myself then,” Nathan murmured. It wasn’t an excuse. It was simply fact. “I did not know. Perhaps I should have.” He closed his eyes, as a wisp of memory came to mind. Blue skies in the darkness. “I think I dreamed of crows, that year.” And others, but what did that matter now?

“I dreamed as well.” Samuel lifted his eyes to the stars above, what few peeked between sullen clouds. “I left to be born far away, so I would never meet her as a boy. So her happiness would not be disturbed by our missed timing. So we would never pine for what we could not have. So that if I found her again, when the timing was right, there would be nothing to keep us apart.”

That was ruined now. Whatever happened, Samuel and Esa had missed their opportunity. Nathan’s heart sank. He knew how important that could be. What lengths they’d go to, sometimes, to wait for one another. Nathan lowered his eyes. It was a gamble he’d seen before, and sometimes it even worked out. An age difference could be overcome, even a vast one— so long as it wasn’t met when one or the other was truly helpless.

“I understand.” Nathan whispered.

When Samuel met Esa as he was now, their lives together would never recover from that. Tattered as his human shell was, it was still vulnerable— as any child would be. There would never be equality between them under these conditions. It wasn’t just a matter of taboo. Imbalance like that began everything on a wrong foundation, which corrupted any attempt to overcome it. Trying to ignore such a foundation would only turn their devotion against them, and bring them to ruin. The idea was unthinkable to any but the most twisted hearts.

It wasn’t even a question. Samuel had already accepted this fate. Nathan could feel that, and see it in those lowered wings.

“You will never understand.” Samuel’s voice lowered. His anger dragged down into misery.

Nathan wondered if Samuel would ask him to free them from their living vessels. Silently Nathan resolved that he would, if asked. A distant pain swept through him. He accepted that pain without thought, then crushed it out of his heart. This time he would not fail his responsibility.

Samuel finally looked at Nathan again. A haunted expression struggled with heavy words. “I left her in the shadow of a legend we name The Death, under his very wings.” Samuel’s eyes were crazed. Nathan could see his own captured energies swirling in that pale mess, burdening their madness. “What could I think would be safer than that?”

“You hid her well. No one knew she was here.”

“Right here!” Samuel’s wings trembled. A painful grimace pulled his lips back from bright and grinding teeth. “In your very shadow, you wretched thing!” His wings hunched forward, gray feathers floating away from the gesture. “You did not find her? Yet you led your calamity right to her!” He jabbed an accusing finger towards Nathan’s sagging wings. “How dare you wear your glory so close to where it failed? What defends you, that did not defend her?”

“Nothing.” Nathan tucked his wings further back. He felt their weight so deeply, right now. Their struts dipped even lower, a posture they rarely took. He accepted the heaviness in his heart. He let that gravity flow into the tone he took when he spoke. “I do not deny what I have done, dear brother. Nothing defends me from that, and I lift nothing to do so. I have failed you.”

“Every moment I exist,” Samuel’s voice hollowed out, the haunted look deepening. “Every beat of this cursed heart, the cries of my beloved cut more keenly through it.”

“I’ve known you too well, Samuel,” Nathan said softly. His unassuming words threaded across the distance between them. “You suffer the weaknesses of those from whom you take, as well as their strengths.”

“I will not suffer your weakness,” Samuel spat. “Be gone from my sight.”

“Pretending otherwise only strengthens the pain.” Nathan’s influence wound around the sound of his voice, pushing gently at Samuel’s resistance. His words weren’t reaching to Samuel anymore. Nathan’s spirit called through the angel to the bits of himself Samuel was struggling to absorb. “Refusal, I wield as a weapon. Denial only poisons me, and forces me to turn that weapon in on myself.”

A sharp, bitter laugh pulled itself from Samuel’s grimacing lips. “That sings to me more clearly than anything else I took from you, wretch. On yourself, and on anything unlucky enough to be around you.”

“Then you know.” Nathan lifted his left arm, his hand outstretched in offering. “If you turn me away while my blood is fresh on your blade— when you know you need my help— that denial will undo you.”

Samuel shuddered. His wings lowered, and the gray tint crept further up their pinions. A terrible sign. Nathan searched for the slightest indication, the barest hint of a moment in which Samuel might accept his grace. He saw none.

“For Esa’s sake,” Nathan urged, “Let’s do this right.”

A blue shimmer swept violently down Samuel’s remaining black feathers. Samuel’s movement was too quick for Nathan to follow. Even with the spirit driving his vision, Nathan barely perceived what happened. Samuel’s hand dove into his jacket, and whipped out something small. Something shining. The boy’s entire body poured its force into the throw, twisting to fling the object at Nathan’s head.

Nathan did not move. He did not flinch. He accepted the outcome, his eyes fixed on Samuel’s. Something glinted, whisked past his head. A dull thunk, and he felt a tug on his temple.

Nathan’s eyes slid left. He turned his head slowly. A cascade of blue— the longest on this side— had been pinned to the tree–trunk. A delicate throwing–knife, the last reclaimed from the museum, held it there. Nathan turned his eyes back to Samuel.

“Never invoke her name in my presence again.” Samuel turned his back on Nathan. He squared his shoulders, and stepped into the house.

Nathan freed himself, and followed in silence.

Part Ten

Ben wept.

He didn’t cry. He didn’t sob. He broke around the sadness, and coughed it up in tortured moans. He choked on the shards of his broken heart, and curled hard around the empty space where it used to beat. Both arms crushed around his stomach, and he brought his knees up as high as they would go. He couldn’t curl in tight enough to stop shaking.

It wouldn’t get dark enough in here. Floodlights from the parking lot still shone through the curtains, and escaped into the room around their edges. He hadn’t turned off the hall light. It still shone in under his door. Ben wanted it so much darker— so dark he couldn’t see anything. So dark that he couldn’t even imagine seeing anything ever again. So dark he could forget there was anything outside his eyes. He wanted everything, everyone, to go away.

A shadow outside. It paused, briefly dimming the hallway’s contribution to Ben’s frustration. Some part of Ben’s brain registered that Nathan was out there, but he just couldn’t care.

Ben shoved his face into his pillow, and let out a wail. He couldn’t try to be quiet. The feelings were too big to keep quiet. He couldn’t control anything. He was getting his pillow soaked. There was snot mixing in with the tears. He just couldn’t get the sad out fast enough. It kept building and building into more.

He had no idea how long that went on. Time didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Eventually he just ran out of strength, and sound, and tears, and everything else. Finally he just lay on the bed, and stared into empty space. The shadow was long gone. Ben didn’t breathe. His heart gave up beating. The air conditioner kicked off, as the heater reached 70. The only sound left was a soft, erratic ticking.

It meant Ben’s hands were still trembling. In his right hand, his fingers were still curled around the red suede bag. Inside, Yusom’s stones clicked against each other.

“Never walk through Maya alone.”

Ben had assumed that Maya was a word for life, when Yusom said it. When he asked May later, though, she said it was a little more complicated than that. She said it was more like a veil of uncertainty, doubt, and delusion through which people saw the world. She wasn’t sure how Yusom used it specifically, but she promised to ask when she could.

Ben hadn’t had the heart to tell her what happened to Yusom. He figured he shouldn’t be the one to do it, anyway. Juno knew more about it than Ben did. He’d know how to say it gently.

Ben tried to loosen his grip on the suede bag. He was gripping it way too tightly. He didn’t want to damage it, like he seemed to damage everything else. Delusion. How had he gotten so deluded, anyway? How had he managed to pretend for so long that this day wasn’t going to come?

Pathetic. I was wrong to choose you.

The spirit’s undeniable words burned away everything else in Ben’s skull. Shivers in Ben’s bones almost made him drop Yusom’s pouch. That set Ben off again. He gasped, and gagged on a sudden wave of nausea. He curled in around those rattling stones, and tried to shut that awful voice out. He couldn’t. Its disappointment just kept echoing in loops beneath his thoughts. Tears found their way down his cheeks and dripped into his ear.

“Shut up…” Ben sobbed brokenly. “Shut… up…” He couldn’t breathe past the crying, and he didn’t need to, but his body still tried. He sobbed even louder. His body wracked, spasming like it was trying to squeeze all his despair out of his throat at once. “Just let me die!” Ben wailed.

You can stop this. You can kill that soulless little boy. It is blinded to me.

Ben’s frustration balled up in his fist, and he whacked the side of it against his head. He achieved a dull thunk, but that just made his head hurt. “I won’t!” Every few words punctuated by another hit, “Help! You kill! An angel!”

The body, then. It will barely miss the body.

“Go away,” Ben wailed. His ears were ringing now. He grabbed his pillow in closer. He hugged it as tight as he could. “Go away, go away, GO AWAY!”

You are running out of time. Every moment you let your angel spend with the Sepulchre draws you closer to destruction.

“Just end it already,” Ben moaned. “Just stop making me stay alive. Whatever you chose me for, I don’t want it.”

You’ve begged me over and over not to let you die.

“Now I’m begging you to take it back!” Ben curled his fingers even tighter into the pillow, and wailed, “I just want it to be over! Just make it be over!” Ben squeezed his eyes tightly shut. “GOD!” he screamed, “Whatever I did wrong, I’m sorry! I tried, I really tried so hard, but I’m just so tired of screwing it all up! It’s too much, and I’m just so tired!”

What makes you think God would listen to someone like you?

Ben did his best to ignore that. A spark of faith brought agonizing hope, and lifted Ben’s voice even louder. “God, please!” Ben shrieked. “It hurts too much! Can it just be over now? Can it, please?” He poured all his heart into the plea, and waited.

Ben waited, and he believed.

Are you satisfied now?

Nothing in Ben’s life had ever been so disappointing as that voice shivering up his spine again. It plunged him into a darkness that swallowed up everything else. It buried him in absolute despair.

“I hate you,” Ben sobbed. He wasn’t sure who he was saying it to, and he didn’t care. He just went limp, his grip on the pillow releasing. He wanted to sink through the bed, sink through the floor, sink into the deepest place he could get to and just keep sinking.

Ben wanted so much to be somewhere black, cold, and alone. He didn’t want to be in the room where he’d sat, night after night sometimes, reading that stupid book and looking up the hard words. He hated that book so much. Nothing had been all right since he got to its awful end.

Ben looked around the room. He didn’t want to be surrounded by all the stuff Yusom won and sent to them. He didn’t want to stay here with all the things that fooled him into thinking maybe he could have a kind of life, a kind of family, after everything that made him a real person was gone.

He didn’t want to be in the room where he’d lain awake wondering if Nathan would make it through another night. He didn’t want to listen through the same walls, the way he’d listened to Devon hurl curses and praises, even threats. Whatever might get a wounded angel to open his eyes.

It wasn’t just the room. He didn’t want to be in this apartment anymore. Ben didn’t want to be in the place where Nathan had finally taught him how things worked. He didn’t want to remember how the things they baked smelled so good. He didn’t want to think about the TV shows Nathan put up with, just because sleepless nights got so hard for Ben sometimes. They’d even rented Army of Darkness, a bunch of times. When blood shot out of the pit, Nathan always laughed. Every single time. Nathan rarely laughed, and never like that. It was a quiet, dry, helpless kind of laughter. Nathan’s laughter was something that bubbled out of him of its own volition, and that was like nothing Ben had ever seen from the angel in any other context. It was way more fun to watch than the movie.

None of that would ever happen here again, and Ben didn’t want to face it for another second.

I gave you all of that. I can give it to you again.

“What makes you think I’ll ever listen to you again?” Ben moaned. He rolled onto his back. Hot tears ran into his ears. He hated that, but his body felt too heavy to move. “You tricked me. You lied to me. You always lie to me. You’re the reason he hates me.”

I’m the reason he hasn’t killed you yet. Take my power and destroy the Sepulchre, and my conditions will be restored.

“So what, so I can get even more attached, and go through…” Another sob wrenched itself out of him, “Go through it all again, only worse?”

I can give you much more power than what you’ve accepted of me. You don’t need to be helpless anymore.

“You want to give me power?” Ben stared up at the ceiling. “Give me the power to set Esa free.”

If you wish. The angels I have bound to her are keeping her alive, sustaining her against the venom. If I tell them to leave her, she will die as your angel nearly did, only faster.

“You’re lying. Why even bother lying to me anymore? I told you. I give up. I’m not what you’re looking for.”

I could not stop the beasts as quickly for her as I did for him. I was interrupted that night.

“Why don’t you just fix her then, the way you offered to with Nathan?” Ben closed his eyes. “You told me over and over that you could save him right up until the end.”

If that is what you wish. Bring me to her, and I will.

“Like hell I will. You’ll just take me over like you did when Nathan was in the hospital. You can’t trick me again.” Ben sobbed a little more. Misery wrenched itself out of him and stuffed up his head horribly. “Fine, then, don’t tell them to let her go. Just let me go. Let me die and let them find her and everything will be the way it should be.”

What reason do I have to bind my servants to her if not for your sake? They could be of use to me elsewhere. She is no use to me at all.

“If she’s no use, then why keep her? You can just let them hand her over.” Ben shrugged slightly. “Like a ransom. Tell Nathan he held up his end of the deal and return her peacefully.”

The Sepulchre could destroy their usefulness to me. Why should I risk this for you if you intend to die? What you suggest makes no sense. If I leave you, I will send someone to destroy her myself. That better serves my plans.

That didn’t feel like a threat. The voice shivering through Ben’s bones wasn’t angry, or even interested. It was a matter–of–fact statement, a simple reality. Ben’s blood chilled even deeper, and he rolled back on his side. He curled his spine in, and put his knees against the wall.

“I don’t know what to do,” Ben moaned, “I wish I knew what to do.”

You were happy, weren’t you? You seemed happy, before the Sepulchre arrived.

“Oh yeah,” Ben sniffed, trying to wipe his face on his sleeve. Sarcasm felt a little stronger right now than sincerity. “Everything was just perfect. Oh wait! No it wasn’t. Because somebody innocent had to suffer for years to make that happen!”

Why should you care? You never met Esa. She wouldn’t lift a finger to save your life. None of them would.

“You’re such a liar. Nathan’s saved my life over and over.”

Because I bound him to you. You saw what happened when Kim Morris was in need. If not for you and I, both she and her attacker would be dead right now. You were surrounded by angels who stood by and did nothing.

Ben couldn’t help thinking about Ms. Morris, and about the stranger who watched from the shadows while someone held her hostage. He couldn’t help but think of the kind blue eyes that watched it all, and the outstretched hand that took his.

The memory still felt so fresh, after all this time. Ben could still smell flesh burning, sizzling away from the gaping hole in his hand. That had been his own fault. He hadn’t expected so much backlash from the explosive force he’d tried to absorb when he stopped up the gun. All that heat and energy had to go somewhere, so it had gone into him.

The stranger saw that hole in Ben’s hand, and healed the supernatural wound. At the time all Ben felt about it was grateful. In hindsight the whole thing was awful. The wounded gunman had run right past Ben.

Mike Archer. Ben squeezed his eyes shut, and tried not to see Mr. Archer crying up on the podium. Mr. Archer could have been healed with a touch. His repentant new life could have included the use of his hand. Ben would have healed on his own, without the stranger’s help. Mr. Archer had surgeries and still ended up in pain.

It didn’t matter, to angels, if peoples’ lives were ruined— or even if they died. The angels didn’t do anything for any of them until it was already too late to matter. Ben, Mr. Archer, even Kim. They were only talking monkeys to angels. Same as all humanity. Their needs didn’t matter.

“Nathan took care of me, though.” Some small spark of defiance kindled in Ben’s chest. “You didn’t make him do that. He didn’t promise to buy me clothes, or cook with me. He did that on his own. He was starting to…”

Ben didn’t dare voice it. He didn’t dare think it. For years he’d protected himself from getting that idea in his head. Why had he almost said it? Bit by bit, over the last few months, he’d kind of forgotten to keep those defenses up. He’d gotten comfortable in this weird afterlife. How had that happened? Somewhere along the way Ben had grown to like it.

That, he decided, was his mistake.

Your mistake is refusing what I offer you. You’ve already saved two lives. There are countless more.

“Why should I believe you’ll help me do that?” Ben scoffed. “You’re worse than anybody I’ve ever met. You don’t even care about saving angels. What could a bunch of pathetic crawling monkeys mean to you?”

Nothing. You are what matters. To keep you happy, I am willing to make the effort. Will that satisfy you?

“You’re just telling me what I want to hear. You could have offered me something like that any time you wanted. I don’t believe it, now that you’ve tried everything else.” Ben’s misery was finally giving way to a dull kind of numbness. That empty feeling brought some relief, but it was awful too.

You would have caused too much trouble, then. Until now you did not understand why you must act in secret, so you are not discovered. If you call on me, I can accomplish that. My doings are secret even from angelic kind.

“I’ve seen what you do to people. How can you seriously expect me to believe you’ll help me save them?” Ben tried to shut out the memory of those hollowed–out corpses. He could still feel their souls burrowing out of them, taking the essence of their lives with them. He still heard their echoes, when he thought about them. “You don’t save anyone.”

No. But you do.

Ben hated how much he wanted that to be true. He wanted to save people, but it always came at such a cost. Nathan always pointed it out, and Ben couldn’t ignore it. When he tried to be a hero, someone always paid.

There is no reason for this to be so difficult. If you will only fulfill your potential, I have already demonstrated that I am more than willing to cater to your needs.

“How am I supposed to live up to my potential?” Even numbness had to give way to that frustration. “People were always telling me to do that. What is my potential, anyway?” Fresh tears stung Ben’s eyes. “How am I supposed to live up to it if I never know what it is!” Ben freed a hand, and slapped it against the wall. The impact shuddered through the denim on his knees, and found an answering shudder in his faltering heart. Ben looked at his hand. He wished it could smash through all the walls holding him in right now.

This is your potential.

The room swept away from Ben. That was a shock. That normally only happened with his eyes closed. Ben saw himself standing amidst the rubble that had been his city. It took Ben a moment to get his bearings. There were a bunch of people behind him, standing at the ready. Ben realized that they were waiting for his command.

No. Not him. Some other version of him. The Ben he saw was confident. He didn’t look scared of anything. Ben watched himself gesture to the others, and together they poured down a hill. Angels met them at the bottom, their glowing eyes filled with terror even as they rushed into the attack.

Ben watched himself grin. Black smoke poured from Ben’s fingertips, reaching the angels before he did. The smoke tore at them. It stripped the feathers from their wings. Defenseless, they couldn’t even flee before the people following Ben reached them. The humans following Ben tore terrified angels apart.

Ben watched Nathan fight his way through this crowd of victims. Nathan was the only one who wasn’t terrified. No. Not Nathan. There wasn’t anything human in that polished marble expression. His eyes were burning from edge to edge. They were completely taken over by the spirit inside. The angel of Acceptance forced his way past Ben’s followers, his wicked scythe mowing them down like unruly weeds.

Ben had never seen Nathan fight like this. Hardly anything could touch the angel. All that awful black smoke passed through his rich brown wings, leaving them unharmed. Ben watched himself confront the angel, and watched the angel try to cut him down. There was a look in Ben’s eyes as he ducked, one he’d never even considered. It was a look of superiority. A look of malicious pleasure.

Everything about this awful scene intensified, all at once. Ben started to feel the vision as if he were really there. He smelled violets on a cold wind blowing through mahogany feathers. Sunlight fell so warmly on his skin. He felt so light, and buoyant, as he toyed with the angel. He felt the pleasant stretch of his muscles as he spun and sidestepped vicious strikes. Waiting, waiting, for Acceptance to lose its grip. Waiting for the Makhvet to strike Ben from the darkness in its tortured spirit. There was power coiling deep inside Ben, begging to be let out. Not yet. Not yet. Soon. He felt that power lifting him up, surging through him, filling him with molten—

Everything in Ben recoiled. “STOP!” Ben managed to scream. Distantly he felt his fingers ripping at his hair. “Stop it, stop it! I don’t want to see that! I don’t want to feel that way! It’s not me!”

It could be.

“Never.” The world went black. It was a profound relief, to be released from that vision. Ben felt so deeply grateful for that mercy.

The scariest part was that Ben knew there was always part of him that wanted to feel all those things. That angry, selfish part of him was so tired of being helpless. That hateful corner of his thoughts was louder tonight than it had ever been before. It was the part of him that wanted to make everybody pay for treating him like he didn’t matter. It was the part of him that wanted so bad to knock all those bullies down. It was the pride he knew he’d feel if he could just make them be the ones who were helpless for a change. The more he pretended it wasn’t in him, the harder it became to ignore.

“You can kill angels without me. I don’t want to help you kill anybody.”

Your angel told you himself. Creativity, spontaneity, these things can thwart those such as I. Some of the virtues possess a great deal of both. I cannot plan for when they will overreach themselves. Their vanity will cause them to make wild and unpredictable decisions.

“So what? I can’t predict anybody either.” Ben sniffed, but the tears had finally calmed. He could barely feel his body, the bed, the wall. He felt peaceful, floating in the blackness. “You’d be better off getting Samuel to do that for you. He predicted everything.”

And yet he failed.

Silence gave that time to sink in. Ben slowly opened his eyes. That blind spot again. Angels could be wrong. Angels could fail. So what, though? “I fail all the time.”

The mind of a human child is endlessly creative. A child’s mind is agile, and far less brittle than a mind fully formed. Children adapt to unbelievable realities.

“My mind’s stuck in place, though,” Ben murmured. “It has been, ever since you killed me. I’m not agile or adaptable anymore.”

You are preserved in a useful state. You have already demonstrated that. You surprise the Makhvet. That’s what I need. An ally no one can predict. Not even those such as I.

“To help you kill Nathan.”

To stop him undermining my plans.

“By killing him,” Ben insisted.

It will be unfortunate, if I must destroy him. I would prefer that he serve me.

“He hates you even more than he hates me,” Ben sighed. “He’ll never do what you want him to.”

He has done everything I have desired of him.

Ben didn’t believe that for a second. He groaned softly, and rolled his eyes. He was so tired of the spirit’s lies, and how its voice wrenched itself through his worn out nerves. Ben retreated from everything. He retreated into his memory, and tried to stay there. There was no use talking. Ben had made up his mind.

At least he would always have his memories. There was comfort, clinging to the memory of that first Apple Dutch Baby. The smell of butter melting and sizzling in the baking dish, the apples simmering on the stove. He’d gotten so much of the recipe wrong, but it came out right anyway. If only more of his life could go that way.

Fear kept creeping in, though, and driving warm thoughts away. Ben couldn’t help pacing back and forth over his hours in the dripping, fetid storm drains. He’d been so scared, with Nathan laid out quiet and still beside him in the dark. He couldn’t forget clinging to a cold, lifeless body. It had taken every bit of strength he had, not to give in to his fear. The hardest thing he’d ever done was keep himself from using this power to save Nathan that night. It had torn his heart up, but he was determined not to succumb to the monster inside.

Nathan had trusted him then, and trusted him since. Whatever the Makhvet said in front of the other angels, Ben believed in what he’d seen. After that awful night, Nathan had believed in Ben at least a little. After that Nathan started teaching him things no human ever knew. Ben tried to picture the little plastic wrapper, floating above Nathan’s palm. Nathan hadn’t saved Kim, no. He hadn’t stopped Ben from doing it, either. Nathan had given Ben what he needed and let Ben choose for himself.

From the very first, each choice has been yours. The Makhvet’s fate will be your choice as well. Here is another choice: Would you like to see what your angel is saying about you right now?

Ben didn’t have the strength to fight anymore. Something collapsed inside him. It was strangely painful, to hope that what Nathan was saying would help. He was so sick of never knowing what Nathan really thought about him. It was easier to think Nathan hated him than to wonder all the time.

The back and forth in Ben’s head was too much to take. He needed some kind of validation for his faith in Nathan right now. That, or a good reason to let go.

Show me. Ben sank into the thought, and let go of his senses. He knew he was probably getting tricked again. He couldn’t bring himself to care.

They were inside Esa’s house. Ben recognized it from his very first visions. Nathan was following after Samuel, as Samuel wandered from room to room. Samuel’s fingertips slid along the walls. His touch brushed over the housepaint as he traveled.

At first Ben couldn’t understand what he heard. Both angels were speaking in Malakhrit. Nathan’s speech felt old and heavy, more formally spoken than anything Ben usually learned. Samuel’s words were clipped and smushed together. They said more with less sound.

The vision deepened. The last faint sensations of Ben’s body slipped away from him. He began to understand the angels, though he wasn’t sure how. The meaning reached him before the sound of the words got through.

“Samuel.” Nathan’s voice was so warm, so caring. Ben ached to hear it. He’d never heard the angel speak that way before. “It will take you time to fully absorb everything you’ve taken.”

Samuel shuddered, but he didn’t look back. He ignored Nathan, and absorbed himself in his surroundings. He didn’t look well, though. His wings were pale around the edges. Gray feathers kept crumbling away, drifting to nothing when they left his wings.

“Samuel, please listen to me.” The concern in Nathan’s face was plain, even though he kept his head bent and his chin tucked low. “I know what was in my heart when I saw you.” Heaviness, then, and deep pain behind the sound, “I know the guilt you’ve tasted. I know what you may have seen of me. But you cannot begin to suspect the truth behind my actions.”

“Can’t I?” Samuel snapped. He turned in the middle of the kitchen to confront Nathan. “I have fought alongside you, and fought you more than anyone else who yet lives to tell the tale.”

“No one knows what—”

“I know you, Makhvet!” Samuel’s voice seethed. Passion and fury wrestled for control of that multilayered voice. “Like me, you stand apart.” He took a step towards Nathan, his little fists balled up at his sides. “I know how little you would throw your immortal life into protecting, as you did for that child!”

The thought warmed Ben. It eased him a little. He fell deeper into the vision, and waited for Nathan’s reply.

“Do you really believe that?” Nathan put pressure behind the question, and stepped closer. “Yes, you know I am sworn to protect the child. Did you take nothing more of me than the service forced upon me?”

“Don’t hide behind your bargain!” Samuel snapped. “Your debts to me run deep enough! Pay me the respect of honesty!”

“You must possess echoes of my panic, Samuel. It overwhelmed all else, when your attention first turned from me.”

Ben warmed a little more. Nathan’s wings swept into view behind him, and their posture opened. When he spoke again, his voice was hushed.

“You must know how deeply I feared what you might take from that puppet’s remains.”

Ben’s fragile comfort dropped out of him, leaving a bottomless pit in its place. Samuel stared back at Nathan, tense and unresponsive.

“I wasn’t protecting the child, Samuel,” Nathan insisted. “I was protecting you.”

Part Eleven

Even Ben’s thoughts were stunned into silence. He watched Samuel stand. He saw those pale eyes turn up to Nathan’s.

Nathan towered over Samuel. Nathan’s soft brown wings tucked low behind him, with the upper knuckles turned outward. The inner muscles that normally held up his wings had relaxed, and the soft creamy down beneath puffed out exposed. That spoke to Ben more vividly than anything. With the spirit’s help he could truly feel the emotion behind that posture. He could recognize its openness, and the humility in its submission. Ben had seen Nathan’s wings like this before, in another memory, but he’d never really understood it like this.

Nathan wasn’t lying. He was offering up the truth with everything he had. He hadn’t been protecting Ben last night. He really had been protecting Samuel. There wasn’t room left in Ben’s heart for denial, anymore. He had broken into pieces too small to contain anything like doubt.

Samuel tilted his head a little. Long gray hair swished across his face. His black wings relaxed a little. Their forward hunch settled back slightly over thin shoulders.

“What could you have been protecting me from, by shielding the child from me?” Samuel’s voice sounded honestly puzzled, the whole thought expressed in two short words.

“With all my heart I beseech the grace of Mercy,” Nathan whispered, in three longer words, “May no one ever know.”

“That’s not good enough,” Samuel hissed. His wings hunched forward again, arching heavily over him. “You give me silence, when your memories sing of such bitter truths!” He stabbed a finger at a point past the kitchen. Ben was a little disoriented, but he guessed that gesture pointed towards the street outside. “You were here, Makhvet! You were here when it happened!”

Ben knew that they’d been on that street before. He knew that much was true. He’d known since they first walked up to Esa’s house. That blotch on the pavement was a stain on his soul. Ben tried to force the memory out of his mind, but he couldn’t escape it completely.

He’d been knocked out of the black by a blow to his chest. As the air went out of his body, the sight came back to his eyes. The first thing he’d seen was Nathan’s furious expression. The second thing he’d seen was the horrible twisted mess that his victim had become. Someone had attacked him. Someone hurt him, and his terror summoned up the blackness within.

It was strange, now, to think of himself as that terrified little kid. He didn’t even recognize the weak little pathetic thing in his memory. He’d barely put up a fight, that night. He’d run and hid in those inner shadows even as he begged them to leave him alone.

“Your little pet called forth the scavengers which attacked her.”

That couldn’t be true.

Could it?

“We’ll be lucky if we get out of here in less than fifty pieces.” That’s what Nathan said to him, that night. Ben felt violently sick. His body echoed that nausea somewhere far away. Using the spirit’s power seemed to draw those creatures out, didn’t it? Back then, he and Nathan always seemed to get attacked every time Ben succumbed.

Of course he’d been the one to bring all those monsters out hunting. Ben hated himself from the depths of his weary soul. He’d put that much together a long time ago, hadn’t he? He’d called them out like a dinner bell, and then Nathan whisked him away. Of course they found her instead. As soon as he saw where Esa lived, all those years ago, that suspicion crept into his fears. They’d turned and attacked her instead of following him. Some part of him had always known that. He’d just spent a long time ignoring that part of the equation. The part that was all his fault.

“Admit it! Your only thought was to get him away from them! You left the city!” Samuel’s voice rose to a yell. The force of it thumped the cabinets and rattled the battered oven door hanging off its hinges behind him. “You left her to them!”

“I didn’t know she was here,” Nathan’s wings lowered as far as they would go. They opened up further to accommodate the gesture as they sank through the floor behind him. The kitchen wasn’t big enough to contain them, Ben realized. They faded through walls and objects, spoiling their illusion of reality. “She was dormant, Samuel, as you were. Nothing should have been able to see her here.”

But you could see her, couldn’t you. You can see everything.

Ben’s internal accusation went unanswered for a moment. Then the silvery, vicious voice within him welled up in reply.

It did not matter to me what happened to her. You would have been destroyed before dawn’s end, had I not intervened.

Ben wished he could feel his body. He wanted to hit something, to scream, to do anything that would let even a little of his anger out. Suddenly none of this seemed like a tragic accident anymore. Suddenly it all seemed too neatly laid out to have happened on its own.

He would not have left you in my service. He had already waited longer than I expected he would.

So the spirit set him up to be hurt. It put him in the path of somebody violent, or maybe even scared someone into being violent. Like always, it pretended to save him so it could blame him when it went after what it wanted. Ben was so sick to death of this game. Hate hissed back down from every cell of his brain, and met that awful voice before its shivers could fade.

You already killed me! What did it matter! You said all these things were my choices! Well, I would never have made that choice! You never gave me a chance to say no to that!

You asked what it would take to get life to ease up on you a little. You wanted the angel to help you. You cried out for these things. I did what was necessary to give you what you wanted. Nothing less would have accomplished it.

But… I didn’t know anybody could hear me thinking those things! I didn’t even know you were here!

Then who were you talking to? Yourself? Could you have accomplished any of that? Perhaps you spoke to God? What do you expect God would have done for you that I didn’t?

Ben had never really thought about that before, either. What did he really expect, when he asked for that?

Did you expect perhaps that God might overcome the angel’s will? Subjugate his emotions to your wish, and enslave him to your service?

What an ugly thought. It made Ben’s blood run cold. He didn’t like imagining that kind of thing. That wasn’t like him at all. He hadn’t really wanted that! He was just lonely! He’d just wanted things to get better! He just wanted Nathan to be nice!

I cannot enslave Acceptance. I am not given the ability to do such things. I chose the only actions that would stay his hand, and force him to help you.

Ben shrank back from those silvered words in pure horror. He thought back to the second book Nathan had given him. Twain’s “The War Prayer.” When he went back and really read it, it made him think a lot about the unspoken part of prayers. How they would have to be accomplished, what they would have to cost. It made him see what some wishes really were, beneath a thin illusion of what they wanted to be.

All the fight went out of Ben in an awful rush. He could tell himself anything he wanted to, but he could already see the spirit’s words lurking in the unspoken part of what he’d wanted. He hadn’t just wanted Nathan to ease up on him. If he was really honest with himself, he’d wanted Nathan to protect him. To look after him. That’s exactly what Nathan had been forced to do, ever since Esa had been taken hostage. That was what all of this had been designed to do.

I did this. This is my fault.

We accomplished it together. Together we can prevent our work from being destroyed.

Ben couldn’t bear to listen anymore. He searched for something, anything to focus on. He clung to the vision, and begged it to drive all other thoughts away. Samuel had walked past Nathan, and now he was saying something. Words finally filtered through to Ben again.

“This makes no sense. I expected this to be in tatters.” Samuel’s pale eyes were lit up, their tint still fading in and out of ice blue. “The defenses are intact. Exactly as I left them.”

Nathan nodded. “They were intact when I reached them. None of the home’s protections were disturbed.”

“How could anything get past my allies?” Samuel’s confusion stole the split tones from his voice. “Nothing living should have been able to surprise them. Nothing unliving should have been able to enter here.” Samuel rubbed his fingers over a nearby wall. “Not without bearing my seal.”

Nathan’s eyes were blazing too. His wings lifted, and tucked thoughtfully behind him. “Is it possible someone bearing your seal might betray you?”

“I would have answered you no, one life ago.” Samuel turned back to face Nathan. Samuel’s wings trembled. Their deep black faded, gray encroaching across their backs, as he spoke. “But one life ago, if anyone asked me if you would flee from battle, I would have rebuked them bitterly.” Samuel turned away. His discolored wings hung heavy, and a shudder fluttered through them. “And from the one we swore to follow against the Morning Star.”

Nathan’s eyes lowered, and their light retreated. He didn’t answer. He watched in silence as Samuel spoke.

“His pain, as well, has been my constant companion.” Samuel winced, and his hand drifted up to the left side of his face. “From birth I have been seized from time to time by his torment.”

“I have freed him from his torturer,” Nathan whispered.

“I do not speak of Azdai’s childish fumblings!” Samuel hissed, “I speak of his wounded spirit!”

Nathan’s wings opened in a sudden, startled gesture. They fluttered out of sight, fading to nothing. “So you know,” he stammered.

“Of course I know!” Samuel snapped. He whipped around to face Nathan again, a few grayed feathers dropping away from the motion. “You, who have never been chosen by the devotion of another! You would not know how deep the connection runs between brothers bonded so!”

That shout tightened Nathan’s entire frame. He started to speak, but his mouth shut around the silence. Nathan’s eyes flashed, darker blue hues swallowing their edges. His left hand clenched at his side, knuckles going bone white around the gesture.

Samuel stepped in closer. Pale, defiant eyes turned up to Nathan’s. Grayed wings reached up. Samuel’s wings hunched forward around both their bodies.

“There is no part of him that hides from me,” Samuel’s voice dropped to a low, seething growl, “I even feel his forgiveness of you.”

This hit Nathan harder than anything else. He staggered back a step. Surprise and pain fought for Nathan’s expression. His breath flew from him in one sharp, quick exhalation, and he didn’t draw it back.

That wasn’t enough for Samuel. He didn’t let up for a second. “It finds no welcome in me.” His ruined wings slicked down. Anger made them look tight and flattened. Contempt dripped from every syllable. “His forgiveness is often ill–given, his generosity abused.”

Nathan’s chin dropped toward his chest. He finally took a ragged breath. Ben could see how hard Nathan’s shoulders were shaking. He knew Samuel had to see it too.

“That which Endures finds little reason to punish that which does not.” Samuel’s eyes flashed ice blue hatred. His words were venomous. Ben could see each landing harder than the last. “I find little reason to forgive those who fail from frailty.”

Nathan said nothing. He flinched away, like something was about to hit him. He closed his eyes, and took a longer, shuddering breath. He took it all so quietly. Why did he take it so quietly?

Samuel opened his mouth to say more, then stopped. His eyes brightened, some of their borrowed color draining away. “Wait. Something is wrong.” He stepped past Nathan, and headed for the foyer. “I feel my seal nearby,” he said, his pace picking up, “But not its bearer.”

Nathan didn’t move at first. He made a small, choked sound, though his face went blank. Nathan sucked in another breath, then held it. After a few seconds, he let it out in a rush. Then he turned in place. He ran after Samuel, and caught up to him at the house’s entrance. They both stood in the doorway, looking around.

At first Ben didn’t see anything either. Then a subtle motion caught his attention. Something was crawling between the angels, something hovering at the edge of perception. Ben couldn’t quite see it, but he knew it was there. He caught bits and pieces of its shape every time it tried to sneak by. Then it would freeze, and huddle before trying again.

“I know it’s here,” Samuel said. He was looking pretty close to where that shape was wriggling. “That sign of promise can’t help but call out to me.”

The more Ben let himself sink into the vision, the clearer the shape became. The creature looked like it had been a rat once, an enormous one. Its partially exposed skull had been split down the middle. Ben could see its tongue lashing through the seam.

The more Ben saw, the more he worried. The creature’s eye sockets were empty. There were mismatched eyes all along its snout. Ben’s worst fears materialized as he finally saw its body. Its belly was swollen, and peppered with captured pieces. Clumps of wet, matted fur gave way to patches of pale, dead skin and scales.

A Harvester! They couldn’t see it, but Ben could. Its teeth were gnashing. Venom was beginning to drip from vicious fangs, tucked back behind the rat’s buck teeth. The more venom it made, the less fearful its posture became.

Samuel’s eyes narrowed. He stretched out a hand in the rat’s direction. Terror gripped Ben.

Ben heard Samuel’s words a split second before their meaning hit him— “Alta maast!” It was a command to stop, a hard one to disobey. It brought with it the feeling of something strong driving its will into something weaker.

“You bear sign of submission to me,” Samuel continued, “Submit yourself to my eyes.”

One patch of skin, soft and leathery, stopped in place. The rat–thing flew into a panic, trying to tug itself free of Samuel’s command. That captured skin became plainly visible. The angels could see it, now. Samuel reached for it. Ben tried to scream, but he couldn’t make a sound.

Don’t let it bite you! Please!

It will not.

The rat’s jaws snapped angrily, then slammed shut. Its head tossed back and forth, as though trying to shake something off. It twisted in place. Spidery limbs erupted from its flanks, throwing bits of blood and flesh onto the floor. Swiftly these new limbs cut the visible patch of skin free. Small white sparks leapt around it, and kindled in midair.

Samuel noticed the sparks. He hesitated. The rat twisted and shrieked, but Samuel didn’t seem to hear. Pure white flames erupted across the creature’s open wound. That, Samuel could see. Ben flinched inwardly at the sight. He knew how that felt. He fought the panic that set in from memory, from watching that white fire eat his flesh away. The harvester fled down through the steps, dragging pale licks of flame with it. It left the patch of skin behind.

The abandoned flesh didn’t burn. It rested at last, limp and wet on the stoop. It glowed in the center, from a mark on its puckered surface. A complicated symbol sang out to Ben, proclaiming loyalty and service. Then its glow dimmed, and its song stopped. Samuel knelt beside it, and brushed it with his fingertips. The patch of skin began to dissolve. It lost its reality from the edges inward, bleeding off into the world around.

There wasn’t any fire left on that patch, but there were curls of pale smoke rising from it. The sight struck fear deep into Ben. It brought back memories that leaked from Nathan’s eyes, and the cold lump of certainty in Ben’s chest. He’d been sure that smoke meant the angel was going to die.

“What evil power is this…” Samuel picked up the dissolving flesh gently. He cupped what remained of it in both palms. Feeble threads of smoke began to curl downwards, snaking their way towards the angel’s hands.

“I do not know,” Nathan said. His voice sounded hoarse. His expression was still mostly blank, but his eyes looked haunted.

As the smoke sank through, tears welled up in Samuel’s eyes. Samuel choked back a sudden sob. The madness in his expression was gone, now. It drowned in grief. Bright white light filled his eyes from edge to edge, driving the blue tints away.

“No…” Samuel whispered.

Nathan took a step forward. He fell to his left knee beside Samuel. His left arm draped over his upturned right knee, and his head fell forward. Ben had never seen this from Nathan before, but he understood it. Everything about the gesture spoke to Ben of profound loss. Ben could feel that loss too.

Samuel pulled the disintegrating piece of flesh to his heart, and curled his head down over it. “Too little left of you to heal, or even know your own name,” he whispered. Samuel’s voice split into mournful harmonies, “Rest with me, lost friend.”

Nathan closed his eyes, and waited. His face turned away just slightly. His whole posture shifted. He was shrinking away from Samuel, so subtly Ben almost missed it. Even that neutral expression couldn’t completely hide how much the moment unsettled Nathan, when Ben examined it carefully.

Samuel’s voice lilted, pleading with the little fragment, “Join me.” The little piece of flesh brightened, giving up the last of its form. It melted away completely. Samuel took a deep breath, drawing the smoke in through his mouth and nose. What he didn’t inhale sank gently into his skin. Samuel let his breath out, and let his head fall forward.

It took a few minutes for Nathan to break the silence. When he did, his voice was unbearably gentle. “Have we the answer?”

Samuel tried to stand. He tipped forward, and landed on his knees. His hands managed to stop him from falling the rest of the way down the stairs. “My heart is lost.” His voice was choked, heavy with grief.

Nathan nodded. He stared dully at the space where that little piece of Samuel’s friend had been. He waited patiently for Samuel to continue.

“Evil has slain little ones in my service, and worn their forms as trophies.” Samuel’s head fell low, gray hair tumbling to the stoop below him. “Their torn bodies granted safe passage to Esa’s attackers.”

Above them, Samuel’s wings grayed even further. They pulled forward. They tried to hide the angel’s broken posture. One by one, crumbling feathers hit the floor, and melted to nothing.

Nathan reached out at last. He put a hand on Samuel’s shoulder. When he spoke, his voice was unbearably warm. Gently he urged Samuel, “Allow me to help you, little brother.” He squeezed that frail shoulder, and Ben retreated from the familiar sight. “Without acceptance, your talent will be your end.” Ben could feel threads of Nathan’s influence winding around the angel’s split tones.

Samuel pulled away. “My heart’s fire will burn me clean once I have found her again.” He shook off Nathan’s influence with a toss of his head. “I have no need of you. I will take nothing from you but your suffering.”

“Then take it, and my help with it. Do what you will. I offer no terms.”

“And I accept none,” Samuel’s wings folded back, and he tried to stand. Nathan rose beside him. “Know this,” Samuel seethed, “Only for her sake do you breathe a moment’s peace.” Samuel pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. His wings shifted and beat through the doorway behind him, as though trying to help him balance despite their unreality. Nathan tried to steady him. Samuel slapped the offered hand away. “Finding her swiftly means more to me than hurting you.”

“If that is so, then waste no more time refusing me. I keep telling you, Samuel. I know where she was taken next.”

“Take me to this place I keep glimpsing, then,” Samuel demanded, “Show me where this cold trail leads!” Samuel stepped past Nathan, and began descending the front steps. Nathan followed humbly behind. Samuel grumbled, “It will save me the trouble of sifting through your sodden echoes. They stink of humanity, and weary my mind.”

Ben didn’t need to see any more. Ben knew where they were going. He knew where the trail led. He abandoned the vision, and opened his eyes.

Ben blinked. He couldn’t leave the vision. He was out in front of that place now, standing on the sidewalk. He didn’t have a memory to match this. He couldn’t think of a reason to see himself here alone. He wasn’t seeing himself, though. He rubbed his face, disoriented. He could feel his skin. He could hear his breath.

He was actually there!

Ben’s body moved of its own volition. A slow, mindless pace carried him up the sidewalk. Ben found himself drifting like a sleepwalker towards the abandoned house where they’d discovered Charlie. This is where fallen angels had made their awful nest. This is where they kept his childhood friend.

Numbly, Ben watched the house get closer. The place was boarded up. The pathetic vegetation clinging to the front of it had completely withered away. Not a blade of grass grew anywhere near the building now. The houses on either side were abandoned too. Boards holding the building shut were crusted with black mold. Even the sign warning people to keep out seemed to be rusting swiftly away.

The only things living here were little mushrooms, poking up near the foundation. They were tall and narrow. They looked like spindly fingers clawing up from dark loam. Each long stalk ended in a fattened tip. Some of them bent forward. To Ben they looked like half–buried hands, clawing their way out of forsaken earth.

What am I doing here?

Ben tried to say it out loud, but his mouth wouldn’t obey him. The spirit’s voice, beautiful and terrible, ran up his spine. It burst into a million sparks of searing thought.

I will open your eyes to the truth, whether you resist me or not.

There’s no point. I won’t do what you want me to.

You have defied me long enough.

Part Twelve

Ben’s feet climbed the crumbling steps. They carried him toward the last place he ever wanted to be again. Ben fought with all his might to stop. They were his feet! He demanded they do what he wanted them to do. He’d fought the spirit off before. He believed with all his heart that he could fight it off again. He’d won before. He could win again.

What have you won? The illusion that you are good? The illusion that you are serving that which is good?

Ben’s resolve faltered a little. He couldn’t get control back. He couldn’t shove himself free of the spirit’s influence the way he had before. He struggled, but he couldn’t even interrupt his body’s slow, dreamlike pace up the steps. He reached the boarded–up door.

You can’t stop me from being good. No matter what you make me do, I won’t stop trying to be good.

Ben’s fingers stretched out. They curled around molding wood. He watched his hands dig into the boards, and rip them out one by one. One board resisted, and Ben’s fingernail tore off. Little threadworms of pink flesh curled into the wound, and a new nail re–formed. He couldn’t feel the pain. He couldn’t feel anything.

There is no good. There is only conceit, and lies.

Numbed or not, that really made Ben mad.

To hell with you! What makes you think I’ll believe anything you show me? Why should I believe I’m even really here?

Ben’s body stepped over the threshold, and into the main room. Nothing had been disturbed. It was like the scene of Ben’s crime hadn’t even been discovered. The table where he’d stood was still covered in pillows, now speckled with long–dried mildew. It stood there like an altar, surrounded by dust and bones. There were bits of bones everywhere, hollowed out from the inside by monstrous powers. That was all he’d left behind, wasn’t it? Only bones, and a few shreds of clothing.

Some things were new. Scattered beetle shells, probably hollowed out by bigger scavengers, littered the ground. Nothing living remained here now, though. Even the spiderwebs were dusty relics, worn down to bare spindles and dry clumps. All the mold was dried out and dead. It crumbled off and fell with the dust, shaken loose by the jostling of Ben’s steps.

The whole thing was such a shock. Ben had expected this to be cleaned up, the way the angels’ fights normally were. Ophanim usually swarmed the places where Heaven’s war touched the earth, and got rid of all signs that something supernatural had taken place. Some things they stole, others they destroyed. Some objects got carried back to their owners, tucked away in unexpected places where the lost things could find their way back home.

May’s recipe had been one of those things. Ben was sure of it. He’d never seen it in the drawers before that morning. The thought lifted Ben’s heart. He was getting more comfortable speculating about things to do with the angels, ever since Nathan began teaching him to see the world the way they did. He didn’t even have to rely on Nathan anymore. He didn’t have to be a victim now that he understood what was really going on.

I’m getting stronger. I can use your power all by myself. You think I’ll listen to you? I won’t. Just give it up.

Conceit and lies. I offered you that power from the beginning.

Ben wanted to clench his teeth. He couldn’t even do that. He couldn’t do anything but try to fend off wobbles of doubt inside his own head. He was stronger than the puppet he used to be! He had shut the spirit’s voice out before! The spirit fought so hard to get him to break his promise to Nathan, but he’d kept it! He had won! Even Nathan thought so! That’s why Nathan taught him to take control! He’d taken charge of his afterlife, and nothing could make him let that go!

Why would I prevent you from using what I offered you? How you imagine yourself controlling it is of no concern to me.

Ben’s heart sank. He fought the dread certainty setting in. He refused it. He clung to what he’d been told. Nathan told him his soul was too strong. It was defeating its puppet master. He was defeating this spirit! Nathan was an angel, he couldn’t be wrong! Not about spiritual things! He couldn’t get something like that wrong!

Could he?

You are dead. Do you think you can do anything without me?

Souls inhabited dead bodies all the time. Ben saw them once in a while, when Nathan came to collect the forgotten. Sometimes, when they died alone, people didn’t know they needed to move on. Souls lay clinging to the flesh, and Ben hadn’t seen any of them able to move it.

They tried. They always tried. They wanted to get up so badly. Sometimes all they wanted was to walk away. Most of them just wanted to go home. But they couldn’t. They never could. They lay there thinking they would rest a little while, until they had the strength to move again. They lay there trying, while their bodies rotted away around them.

Try to take a step.

Ben’s body halted in place, and a terrible stillness came over it. Ben tried to feel his arms, his legs, even his skin. He tried to imagine what it felt like. He tried to remember how he took each step. It didn’t matter. Nothing helped. He was trapped inside his mind, stuck in place like any of those souls clinging to their corpses.

Try to move.

Ben tried to clear his mind. All these visions of being helpless were probably fulfilling themselves. They certainly weren’t doing him any favors. He had to stop getting in his own way. He remembered Nathan pushing on an invisible wall, showing him how his mind kept throwing obstacles at him that didn’t exist. He couldn’t make himself move by telling himself to. He couldn’t just stare at his hand and will it to do something. He had to know he would move, he had to—

Try to breathe.

Ben could feel his body now. He could feel his legs rooted in place. His arms were hanging from his shoulders like big dead lumps. He could feel his skin, painfully dry and ice cold. His heart wasn’t beating. It wasn’t driving blood to replace the warmth he lost with every moment. His chest wouldn’t move. Panic started closing over him. He didn’t need to breathe, he knew that, but it still felt like he would suffocate. Fear made his lungs ache and burn. He fought, inside his mind, but his body didn’t even tense. He couldn’t even blink.

Now try to stop.

Lightly, his body stepped forward. His foot came down on a hollowed–out skull, and Ben felt it crunch underfoot. He heard himself whistling lightly, then felt a smile crawl across his face.

Ben watched in silent horror. He was locked behind eyes that swept the empty house. He heard a dark chuckle escape him, as his sneaker lifted out of shattered remains. He tried not to think about who they belonged to, but he couldn’t help it. The harder he tried not to think about it, the quicker his mind replayed the last night of her life.

He could see little wormy tracks snaking through her bones. He could see her burrowing out to meet him, escaping as her flesh failed. He’d dreamed of this place over and over, reliving the awful moment that caused those hollows. Her soul had rushed from her body, responding to the spirit’s unnatural call. It had taken with it the life, the marrow, the essence of the person she used to be. The captured soul destroyed everything in its path. It drained everything important away.

Ben could still see this girl’s face. She was thin–lipped and serious. She had dark hair and big brown eyes. He’d watched those big wide eyes roll back into her head, then collapse like punctured bicycle tires. They’d sunk down into their sockets by degrees.

At the time, he hadn’t been aware. He couldn’t know what was happening. Since then the spirit had shared that moment with him over and over, until he lived in terror of his dreams. The more he understood the memory, the more horrible it became.

By now Ben felt like he knew every detail of that night. He knew what a rush it was, when the captured souls poured into his grasp. He knew what it was like to feel filled to the brim with power. He’d been aware of the spirit enjoying it, though Ben never enjoyed it at all. Ben recoiled from that awful satisfaction, as it all bubbled up in the blackness pressing against his thoughts. He braced against the giddy relief he felt, when all that power rushed back into the world and ripped into everything it touched. It was hard not to get swept up in that rush, but it wasn’t anything Ben ever enjoyed. Ben hated that high more than anything. It was a brief, disorienting sensation that left him shaking and sick in its wake. It left Ben wishing he’d never been born at all.

Sometimes, when he went to bed mad at Nathan, he’d dream of the attack he’d thrown at Nathan that night. He’d watch this girl’s soul rush into the angel, and tear the angel’s wings out of the world. He’d see Nathan hit the wall defenseless, and fall stricken to the floor. He’d watch Nathan lying there, face–down in a shower of dislodged drywall.

Ben tried so hard not to go to bed mad anymore.

His feet were climbing another set of steps now. Wood, not concrete. Gradually Ben became aware of his surroundings again. He could hear voices outside. His body sat itself down, a few steps from the bottom. He slowly started picking out words. One of the voices was Nathan’s. Ben’s horror deepened. His thoughts screamed helplessly inside his skull.

Stop it! Let me go! This is just a dream, or one of your visions! You don’t control me! I don’t believe in you! I’m not really here!

What you believe is of no consequence. What you learn is my only concern.

Nathan’s voice was getting closer. Ben didn’t want Nathan to find him here. He didn’t want to be forced into watching another of the spirit’s fights. He didn’t want it to hurt any more people for him. He wanted to flee, to struggle, to do anything but watch it all go to hell again.

Now. Watch your angel betray you.

He could see them both coming up the steps. They stopped at the threshold, looking into the shadows with their soulless eyes. The angels looked right at Ben, but neither of them reacted to his presence. They both looked right through him.

“She was held here, for a time,” Nathan was still speaking Malakhrit. No translation met Ben’s thoughts. Ben heard the angelic speech the way it was spoken, but understood it anyway. It felt completely natural to him, as though he’d always spoken it.

That scared Ben too. It was easier on him, when the spirit just explained things to him. It was easier when the echoes followed in English, and Ben grasped them on his own. Understanding something he shouldn’t understand went from uneasy to panic-inducing. It drove home just how much of Ben’s control of himself had really slipped away.

“It reeks of suffering,” Samuel pulled the air in, and let it out slowly. “Old death, and remnants of souls.” His bright white eyes skimmed the dried–out spiderwebs, and fell to the hollow beetle shells. “Truly cursed ground.”

Nathan nodded slowly. He sounded so solemn. “They were to be sacrificed, to obscure the escape.” Nathan looked past Ben, lifting his gaze to the top of the stairs. “In frenzied death, soaked in agonized devotion, they were to cover the trail as Esa and her captors fled.”

“They left no such stain,” Samuel frowned. “Are you saying it was removed?”

“The plan never came to fruition.” Nathan gestured towards the shattered skull near Ben’s feet. “Here, the unclean thing drew out their souls. Here, the abomination called to the echo of eternity within them, and called that to its service.”

The unclean thing. The abomination.

Ben had heard Nathan refer to other puppets with names like that. Even when May wouldn’t translate those words for him, some meanings came through pretty clearly to Ben from context. Ben could tell from the way she avoided the subject, how harsh those words really were. The reality was so much worse than Ben’s guesses. Their true impact hit home.

Ben wished he could breathe. He couldn’t stand how still he was. No living thing could ever sit this still. He knew he was something wrong. He knew that he shouldn’t exist. Nathan saying it still sent a hot knife of shame through Ben’s heart.

Stupid, he told himself. It’s not like it’s a surprise. It had just been so easy, when they were living happily, for Ben to forget.

Strike down the Sepulchre, and you will forget again.

Your unclean thing. Your monstrosity.” Samuel closed his eyes, and shivered. The tips of his longest feathers were deep brown now. Tints of mahogany and tan crawled up the backs of grayed–out wings. “Their echoes still accuse him. Your blood cries agreement.”

“Yes,” Nathan’s eyes lowered. A soft kind of sadness came over his features. Ben thought he saw shame in that expression. Ben hated that he made Nathan ashamed. He hated that so much. “Still, your Aspect’s trail should be clean from here. The human tracker was struck down in the fray.”

“By you,” Samuel snapped.

“That was not my intent.” Nathan whispered.

“You were so blinded by the idiot monkey you inhabit,” Samuel hissed, “You lost the focus of your will. In a moment of temper you incapacitated them all, including Juno’s pet bloodhound.”

“Yes,” Nathan admitted, his voice calm and quiet. “Once I’d made that mistake, I had no confidence he would survive an attempt to reconnect with her.”

“So you chose another monkey’s precious beating heart,” Samuel spat into the dust, anger choking his voice. “You left her to her fate.”

“So we reach the limit of the memory you’ve taken.” Nathan looked at Samuel, and his attention drifted back across those tainted wings with deep concern. “There was no choice. The enemy had lain a trap for me here, to force my hand. Sacrificing the human tracker would have been pointless. Until I found a tracker I could trust absolutely, I could not risk following her.” Nathan shook his head. “I was thwarted. This thing has been a great deal more than one step ahead of me, throughout.”

“Not hard for me to imagine,” Samuel snapped, a two–word retort that brushed off Nathan’s concerned look. “So what you’re telling me is that your usefulness ends with that monkey’s. Here, where you yourself knocked him off the trail.”

“I’m sure you need no help from a son of Adam,” Nathan said gently.

“Nor from the blind and crippled shadow of the one we once called The Death,” Samuel swayed a little. Brown tints kept creeping further into his feathers. More of them were dropping, and Ben could see blue–gray skin peeking out between them in spots. “Leave me,” Samuel hissed, and stepped across the threshold.

“I will not.” Nathan’s answer was still gentle, but it sounded final. He followed Samuel into the bone–littered room. “My debt is first to her, not you.”

Look what he is willing to suffer, to be rid of you. Look how he allows that little Image to insult and abuse him. All to get one step closer to your end.

Nathan followed Samuel patiently. He walked with such solemn grace. That swishing coat made the movement even more smooth. To Ben it looked as though he might glide into the dark. All six foot three of him held so tall and poised. Slight worry, and distant sadness, softened his pale features. Somehow he still managed to look… strangely peaceful. He looked like a real angel, not the gangly dork that hung around with Ben.

He’s so different when he’s around Samuel.

Ben watched them as they searched around the room. He couldn’t tell what they were searching for, exactly. Samuel kept breathing the dusty air in through his nose deeply, and letting it out slowly across his open mouth. Nathan stood by and watched in silence. Ben could see the concern in Nathan’s eyes deepening, as more and more of Samuel’s feathers dropped away.

He walks differently, he even talks differently. He looks… better.

That blank mask of an expression, the one that so often made Nathan look more like a marble monument than a person, didn’t close over the angel’s features. His expression was serene, but never blank. There was sadness lingering there, but Ben saw comfort and fondness in the way he watched over Samuel’s search. Ben hadn’t even imagined Nathan could be capable of that kind of affection.

Is he always like that, when he’s around his own kind and I’m not there?

They were approaching the stairs now. Ben watched them ascend, and wished he could feel tears in his eyes. They didn’t even blink when he wanted them to. His eyes just followed the angels, scratchy and dry.

Some of the souls collected here are still within reach. All you need is one.

Ben knew that, too. He didn’t let himself think about it often. He felt it sometimes, when he was angry or scared. It felt like, just beneath his feet, there was always a swirling ocean of black. Each drop of it contained a memory, or emotion, or a flash of will. A seething maelstrom of captured souls churned beneath the energy that kept Ben alive.

Call one of my servants to you, and fill it with my vengeance.

He hadn’t managed to do much about Samuel the first time the black–winged angel attacked. Samuel hadn’t even been worried about the way Ben could move air and tame fire. Ben’s best attempt to fight back just made Samuel angry. It didn’t intimidate the angel at all.

The spirit could do a lot more than Ben ever could. Ben thought about the black, putrid stuff that spilled from him, when the spirit took control. It seethed with that same pain, those same helpless echoes. He often forgot that the spirit’s attacks poured through a captured human soul.

Samuel was a different kind of angel, though. Ben remembered Reikha’s fear of darkness, and his fear of those pitch–black wings. Samuel had so much contempt for humans. What would a darkened human soul even matter to an angel like him?

My power will cause the soul to be drawn inside. I am not sure what taking an empowered human soul will do to a Sepulchre.

Eagerness made that voice rush faster and faster up Ben’s spine. Its excitement rattled his bones against each other even harder.

There are so few things I don’t know. I would like very much to find out.

Ben felt the sickening grin plastered across his face widen. Cold sank deeper and deeper into his bloodless skin.

Stop it. Just stop it!

Ben screamed the words in his head, over and over, until that shivering finally stopped. He screamed them until he couldn’t hear his own thoughts anymore. He screamed them until he felt raw inside. The angels passed by him, walking up the stairs on either side. Ben kept on screaming in his head until they were all the way up the stairs. He was so desperate to keep the spirit’s voice quiet.

Nothing you say is going to change my mind! I won’t hurt an angel! They’ll get Esa back and I’ll be gone! I don’t care anymore! I just don’t care!

Ben finally stopped. Silence eased his tension a little. He felt so tired. All he wanted to do was sleep. All he wanted was for all of this to go away.

I know that you care. I know that you ache each time I offer to restore the life you had before the Sepulchre arrived.

Ben felt exasperated, and there was no way to express it. He wanted to sigh, to roll his eyes. He was getting so sick of the fact that he couldn’t even do that. He was sick to death of all of this.

Fine. You know everything. There’s nothing I can do to stop you, is there? You’re going to do whatever you want. Why play the games?

Don’t you see it yet? I am the only one who truly cares about you. I’m the one who answers when you call.

Ben tried hard not to think about that. There was too much truth in that. He’d spent so much of his life trying to get anybody to even notice he was alive. He retreated into that thought. He pulled his frustration around him like a blanket full of bad memories, and hid beneath it from the monster inside.

At first, Ben’s struggle was all about trying to get what he wanted. It wasn’t that he was selfish. Maybe he was, at first. But it wasn’t just that he wanted things. It was that nothing he had was actually for him. Not really.

Everything he got was old hand–me–downs dragged out of the attic. When he was really little he’d had his own baby clothes, but his toys were all old when he got them. He had to ride Sarah’s hand–me–down trike, even though it had sparkly pink tassels on the handlebars. Ben never liked pink. He got half–colored coloring books full of pink. He got worn–out picture books that he never even wanted to read. He got stuffed animals washed so many times they were floppy and pilled.

He grew up living the leftovers of other peoples’ lives.

When he got older, he was even stuck with James’ old clothes. They were always baggy no matter what size. James had grown like a weed, almost immediately. Everything he ever wore seemed to be taller than Ben would ever be. Ben hated that so much, but no one ever seemed to know.

At first Ben just thought he wasn’t getting through to them. He thought nobody could tell what he really wanted. He tried every which way to let them know who he was, and what was important to him, but nobody cared. When he finally got Dorik, his big shaggy dog, he thought maybe he was getting closer. Not a puppy, but not an old dog either. Besides, it didn’t matter if he wasn’t exactly what Ben had been begging for. Dorik was just plain perfect anyway.

God. Was Dorik even alive anymore? Ben fought down the grief that flooded up around that thought.

When Ben became a teenager— or a man, according to his Mom— he tried to make his wants a little more grown up. He tried to be a little less selfish. It didn’t work. Ben couldn’t be selfless. He still wanted so much to matter. He wanted somebody to treat him like he wasn’t just in the way.

Ben could never figure out where to stand, in his life, so he wouldn’t just be in the way. He felt like he was born in the way. It always seemed that just by existing, Ben was screwing up everybody else’s plans. Ben just didn’t want to screw up anymore. He wanted more time with his family, and more time with his Grampa Joe, but he’d gone and screwed that up too.

Ben’s heart squeezed hard in his chest. That was really the only reason Ben kept fooling himself about Nathan. That’s what Nathan reminded him of, when he explained things to Ben. Nathan took the time to help Ben understand things. Grampa Joe was the only other person who sat around telling Ben stories. Grampa Joe actually spent time with him, and answered the stupid questions that always popped to Ben’s mind.

The more Ben tried to spend time with Grampa Joe, though, the worse his parents’ fights about religion seemed to get. He wanted his parents to stop fighting so bad, but he had no idea how to ask for that. So he asked for things like trips and vacations. Those used to be good, when he was small. That used to make everybody happy for a little while. Why didn’t they ever go places as a family anymore?

It didn’t matter anyway. Nothing he asked made any difference. Grampa Joe was gone. By that time, caring about things felt futile. It reminded him of when he was little, and he used to wake up from his nightmares all alone. Sometimes he’d cry and cry, and hope somebody would come to comfort him. Nobody ever did. After a while he tried screaming. It didn’t work. Once, in the morning, his Dad told him to keep it down, and his Mom said they should probably take him to therapy.

After that, Ben didn’t expect anybody to come in when he cried. By the time he did get into therapy, when he met the Tuesday doctor, that wasn’t even something he bothered talking about. Nobody was listening then, and nobody was listening now.

I am listening.

Ben didn’t want to be comforted by that. He really didn’t want to be. He just felt so alone, right now. He was getting really scared of how reasonable that horrible whisper was starting to sound. He didn’t want to fall for its tricks again. He hated being under its control.

I could enslave you easily. I do not want a slave.

Look at what you’re doing to me. I can’t even blink my eyes! Slave would be a step up for me right now!

Ben’s eyes blinked slowly. He didn’t make them do it. They did it on their own.

My slaves are failures. I want an ally.

Ben didn’t even know how to process that. The slow, helpless blink was somehow worse than staring out of dry and scratchy eyes. It drove home how little Ben could really do about anything. He couldn’t even take a deep breath. Ben counted to ten in his head anyway. He tried to find the calm, but he just didn’t know where to start looking for it. He had nothing to reach for, not even inside. Nothing left to hold on to.

I want to go home.

You have no home.

Well then I want to go to the bedroom where I sleep.

Silence followed. It didn’t last.

Know that I would have spared you this.

Ben’s body moved again. He watched himself get up, and start climbing the stairs.

Part Thirteen

Ben stood in the doorway. Shadows stretched out to greet him. They were cast in moonlight, filtering between hastily placed boards. The windows were stitched loosely by rotting wood, not that it had done any good.

The mattress had been dug out by animals. Its stuffing was probably lining all kinds of nests by now. Some of the comforter had been chewed off. The rest was still bundled up on the floor. He didn’t see the chair that used to sit in front of that bed. Someone had taken the chair Seleste was sitting in, when Ben first entered this room.

Ben had been under the spirit’s control then too. When he’d first woke up, downstairs, he didn’t remember anything between finding Charlie and seeing Mr. White’s face. It wasn’t until later that the spirit started showing him exactly what he’d done.

Ben could still see all the fallen angels gathered here. Rahab. Amib. Poor Seleste, all broken to bits inside. Even Jeke. All their names came flooding back from those awful dreams. Jeke attacked Ben, that night, and the spirit turned his attack back against him. The young Marat hadn’t even understood what was happening. There was panic, and confusion, and then Jeke was gone. Forever. Nathan was right. Ben did remember dead angels, when everything else forgot them. None of the dead angel’s friends would remember, if Ben said Jeke’s name. It wouldn’t mean anything to them, but it would to Ben.

And to me.

Ben tried to shut the voice out again. He didn’t want to listen any more. Why couldn’t he just pass out, like he used to? He hated being stuck in this body, not even getting to choose what he looked at. Ben’s thoughts briefly turned to a reflection in an oily puddle. He wondered if this is how that disapproving angel inside Nathan felt, locked inside the teenaged boy Nathan used to be. He hated that angel even more for that.

We did well here, you and I.

Holes in the floorboards. Ben’s chin dipped, and he looked through them at rotting supports beneath the floor. Some of those had holes in them, too. Jeke’s talents ate holes in everything the angel’s fury touched. Everything but Ben. Caustic smoke had already been trailing from Ben’s fingertips by the time they met Jeke’s attack. He ran a finger through the oncoming attack, and turned it back with the gesture. Those energies turned so quickly. They curdled and discolored, and all Jeke did was watch. They curled around Jeke and ate inside, corroding the angel’s spirit with its own corrupted rage. In the end, there was nothing left of Jeke but ash.

Ben didn’t always hate that part of the dream. Watching Jeke die used to feel like a victory, at first. He’d been so angry, back then, because those angels put him through so much pain. Nothing about it felt like victory now, and Ben didn’t even care. The whole thing just felt heavy, pointless, and sad.

Ben couldn’t even turn his head on his own. He had to wait for the spirit possessing him to do it. He paid attention as his eyes took in the room, but he couldn’t find what he wanted to look for. He wanted to see the thick, sharpened hunk of metal that had punched through his back and burst out of his chest.

That spike was another thing that made Ben feel truly powerless. He could barely quiver after that happened. When the spirit took him over, though, he’d snapped that slimy spike like a toothpick. When the spirit took him over, he did things like that all the time.

The spirit ignored his limitations. Usually it acted like it didn’t have any. Hell, it made him feel like he didn’t have any. His spine broken, his body all collapsed inside, none of it even mattered. The spirit just pulled him along like a marionette. Dangling from his strings, Ben confronted the angels who’d run the cult. The angels about to kill Charlie. He’d wanted so much to save Charlie.

If you had remained with me that night, you could have done more.

I didn’t go anywhere.

You hid from me. You succumbed to your fear.

I thought you wanted me to. You always seemed to shove me down into the darkness.

You retreated there when you were not strong.

Ben didn’t feel strong right now. He didn’t feel anything but remorse. He wondered, dimly, who had taken Seleste’s chair. Maybe it was her husband. He’d never really spoken to them, but he knew them all. The spirit made sure of that. Jason and Nicole Dean. Amib and Seleste.

Seleste. The name was still so bitter in Ben’s heart. Gray wisps that barely knew their shape, animating a woman who looked too frail to stand. She’d been holding Charlie, and whispering to Charlie about how she’d let everybody down. Charlie thought she’d let Ben down. Seleste was going to punish Charlie for that, and it wasn’t even fair. Charlie hadn’t let anybody down.

Ben hadn’t fallen into the black, yet, when he threw that spike. He’d watched himself hurl it at Seleste to stop her. It never reached her, though. Amib just snatched the thing out of the air. Seleste dropped the knife, and Ben thought Charlie had been saved. He’d let go, then, and slipped away from his consciousness.

I did what was of benefit to me, then. Charlie was not my priority.

I wanted to save her.

You could have, if you had remained aware.

Ben didn’t want to think about that. He didn’t want to dwell on his missed chances for a moment more. He tried to tell himself that the spirit was tricking him again. That it wanted him to feel like a failure, so he would try harder to do what it wanted. It was smarter than him, and it sounded so confident about everything. He couldn’t outsmart it. There was no point in trying.

It seemed like a lot more than six years ago, especially with all the rot laying dead and dried under thick coats of dust. There were so many beetle shells here, too, and the curled–up bodies of dead flies. Hundreds of them. To Ben it looked like the place had been infested, and then suddenly everything died.

That made it different from the dreams. In the dreams everything was still so immediate and fresh. Looking at it now took some of the power away from those memories. It really had been a long time. He was so different from the scared little wimp being dragged into the darkness. Yet he was somehow entirely the same.

“She was here.”

Samuel’s voice. That came from another room. Ben was already in motion before he located the sound. He crossed into another doorway. He’d never been in this room, not even under the spirit’s control. It looked cleaner than the others. There weren’t any beetle shells or bugs. The mattress here was in worse condition than the one in the other room, though. Ben could see rusted springs poking every which way out of the mess.

There was a simple wooden chair in the middle of the room. It looked untouched. Only a thick coat of dust convinced Ben that it belonged here at all.

Samuel walked to that chair. His fingers drifted over its wooden seat, leaving trails in the dust. Samuel looked bad. His eyes were edged in deep cobalt now, and his feathers looked like dirty ashes. The brown stain creeping up them had reached their upper knuckles, and was eating its way through the gray. Discolored feathers lay heavier and heavier on wings that could not carry them. More and more of them dropped away.

“I…” Samuel stopped, and dropped his gaze.

Nathan stood patiently behind that chair. His wings were out again now, tucked low behind him.

“I don’t understand.”

Nathan didn’t answer. He kept his eyes down, and waited.

Samuel pulled his hand away from the chair. He shook his head, and approached the ruined bed. In all that mess, one pillow still hung together. It was dirty, and discolored, but it hadn’t been torn like the bed had.

As Samuel got closer to the bed, Ben understood why nothing touched that pillow. As the angel approached, Ben felt a terrible pain radiating from that spot. Samuel’s wings trembled, and big patches of bare skin showed under tattered feathers.

Screaming. That’s what it was. Ben could feel it more than he could hear it. Esa’s suffering had soaked into that pillow, and screamed out of it still. Ben wouldn’t have touched that either.

Samuel dropped to his knees beside the bed. He clutched the pillow, and gathered it up to his face. His wings splayed. Ben could see some of their thin bones shaking under velvet skin. Samuel made a choked sound, then let out a piercing wail. Esa’s screams got louder, meeting the agony in Samuel’s voice. Her echoes begged for peace. They begged for silence. They begged for death.

Slowly the echoes faded. They sank into Samuel’s cheek. Ben saw them as little wisps of tormented light that burrowed into the angel’s twitching skin. They left Samuel writhing. His wings clawed at the world around him. They weren’t solid enough to do any damage to anything but themselves. More and more of that velvet skin showed.

Finally Samuel stilled. He slumped heavily against the bed, and let the pillow go.

“How she suffered here,” he whispered.

“I know,” Nathan said softly. “Her cries soaked through my blood before I even reached their walls.”

Samuel closed his eyes again. His fingers curled tightly into what remained of the mattress. “Others reached here, as well.” He shook his head. “The room echoes of Lef’s power, but in the hands of another.”

Nathan blinked. He looked surprised. “There were Fallen at the center of this cult,” Nathan said. “The unclean thing made minions of them, and they took her from here.”

“You know something else, something I haven’t seen,” Samuel insisted. “What are you hiding from me?”

“It’s nothing I’m hiding.” Nathan shook his head. “I assumed Lef’s weapon was taken for some other design. I did not know it had fallen into their hands.” Nathan’s wings twitched a little, and rose behind him. “None of them attacked with it. They never faced me. They slipped away with Esa while I was incapacitated. When I woke, I couldn’t feel her any longer.”

“You are wrong about something else, as well,” Samuel pushed away from the bed, and tried to wipe the dust from his eyes. “This trail is not clean. Something eternal twisted in agony, in this room.”

“If it did, I did not know it. I’m not picking up on it now.” Nathan’s wings opened, and sank back behind him. “It must have happened before I reached this place,” Nathan murmured. “I waited too long. I’d made a promise. To fulfill it I had to delay, in order to retrieve the tracker.”

Samuel’s eyes whipped to find Nathan’s. He looked startled, then suspicious. “You don’t make promises.” Dust settled around him, tossed from his hair by the sudden movement.

“I did many things I do not do, in those few days,” Nathan’s eyes couldn’t meet Samuel’s. “I can give you no explanation. As you said, this life is— uncharacteristic of me.”

“Your humanity distracts you.” Samuel growled.

“My humanity distracts me, but it protected me as well.” Nathan spoke in such muted tones, regret heavy in his voice. “The creature draws off our own power, so it does not reveal its own. Submerged in my vessel, I supplied it nothing, and was able to interrupt its plan.”

This I let him believe. I had accomplished what I wanted. By then, your safety was assured.

I don’t believe you.

Ben reminded himself that his actual memories of that night ended abruptly when he’d thrown the spike, and didn’t pick up again until the fighting was over. The rest were all dreams. How real or not they were, Ben could never truly know.

All Ben really knew was that he’d opened his eyes, so grateful that Nathan had found him. Ben thought he’d woken up from the nightmare, only the nightmare wasn’t over. Nathan had come running when Ben screamed. The first time anybody had ever done that. That much was real. And then…

It was too painful for Ben to think about.

I don’t know why you think this is going to show me anything. I already know more about all this stuff than either of them do.

The spirit didn’t answer.

“There is too much.” Samuel sighed, and rubbed his face with dusty hands. He left streaks behind. The streaks turned thick and muddy where they mixed with Samuel’s tears. “I cannot separate all the suffering in this place. My beloved did not leave enough behind, to point me to where she is now.”

“Try, Samuel,” Nathan urged. “Your bond with her is unbreakable. You must be able to find her.”

“Father forgive me for wishing I’d ever had the will to raise my hand to her.” Samuel sank down onto the floor, and put his head in his hands. “I would have taken from her enough to point the way.”

“Can you take nothing from her echoes?” Nathan’s wings dropped, and his hands clenched at his sides.

“Her cries are so disordered.” Samuel’s voice seemed exhausted, and for a little while the boy’s voice cut through. “They come from every direction and from no direction. They claw at me from within.”

Nathan sighed. His wings dropped from sight. He dropped to one knee beside the chair, and put a hand on its back.

“If you did not meet her captors, how do you know of them?” Samuel whispered.

“They left tokens,” Nathan murmured. He reached into his jacket, and pulled out a small bundle. “I’m not sure they’ll be helpful. They’ve been in my possession for too long. Take them. May they tell you something they haven’t revealed to me.”

Ben got a little closer. He could see the well–worn Polaroid now, showing Amib and Seleste taking a short–haired Esa from the room. It was bundled up in a charcoal braid. Tied at both ends with green ribbon, the braid looked just like it had the day Esa was taken.

Samuel took the photograph from Nathan, then flinched away from its touch. Nathan caught it as it dropped, and handed it back. Samuel took it from him more carefully, then, and ran his fingers along the photo’s worn edges. His eyes shone bright ice blue, their color identical to Nathan’s now. He quaked, barely able to keep his grip.

Ben knew that photograph. He’d seen Nathan staring at it. On those nights, Nathan just sat on the couch. Ben had felt bad for spying, but he’d watched Nathan trace the edge just like that, with a solemn fingertip. He’d seen the weight on Nathan’s shoulders, the slump in his posture. He’d done his best to leave Nathan alone, those nights. He knew what it looked like when somebody needed to be left alone.

“She looks just as she does in my dreams,” Samuel whispered, then traced her face lightly with his fingertip. A few more ruined feathers drifted to the floor, and there they melted to nothing. His wings lowered.

Those black wings weren’t scary anymore. Ben could see so much of their dark blue–gray skin, stretched tight and thin across delicate bones. Misery put shudders in those bones, and ripples across their span.

“I would have cared for her so well, had my vessel not failed me.” Samuel lashed out. He ripped the braid from Nathan’s fingers, and clutched it close to his heart. “Oh, beloved…” he whispered, “How deeply you have been failed!”

“Yes.” Nathan looked away, but then he seemed to settle. His shoulders drew up a little, and his face composed itself all over again. “Can we set it right?”

Samuel nodded “I can find her with this.” He turned the braid over in his hands, then looked up to Nathan with searching eyes.

Nathan looked away. He stood, and brushed the dust from his knees.

“This is the same agony which confused me here,” Samuel murmured. He glanced back towards the chair, then back to Nathan. “It is yours.”

“Doubtless why I disregarded it.” Nathan didn’t look at him. He just waited.

“I couldn’t see past my hatred to recognize it.” Samuel’s voice hushed, almost to nothing. “These tokens are soaked with your suffering.”

Nathan closed his eyes, and nodded. “They are.”

“You could have given these over at any point, to silence me.” Samuel shook his head, and stared down at the braid again. “Why wait until now to prove your fealty?”

“My word was enough, once.” When Nathan spoke, he left his eyes closed. His composed expression didn’t break. “If it is not enough for you now, it hardly matters what I prove to you.”

Samuel’s pale fingers curled in tight around the braid. He crushed it close to his chest again. “Esa,” he choked on the words, “How lost am I, without your guiding light.” Samuel curled in on himself, where he sat on the floor. He doubled over, and stifled a sob. His weight fell on his left hand. Samuel shook his head violently, throwing a dusty halo into the air.

“I make no excuse for my failure, Samuel,” Nathan said. His voice was so low, the words were nearly soundless. “I tried for years to find a way to reach her without alerting her captors. Always with that evil watching over my shoulder, subverting my every move.”

He said it so gently. So carefully. That was the worst part. People saying cruel things should say them cruelly. If something had to rip what was left of Ben to pieces, he demanded that it sound like a terrible thing to say.

Nathan just kept talking. “The one time I managed to form a plan— the very first night a possible solution entered my living mind— the Ophan I planned to seek for help was snatched away.”

Ben hadn’t known anything about that. Nathan had managed to keep it from him. For how long? Ben felt sick. He felt cold, hot, and dizzy, all at the same time.

“Another of my friends?” Samuel whispered. “Was he taken as the others?”

“No,” Nathan shook his head sharply, punctuating the quick response. “Maka eluded the enemy. I did not.”

Maka. Ben’s thoughts raced. That night…

That was the night Nathan almost died. They’d been out looking for Maka. For what? So Nathan could get rid of Ben? All the things Nathan told him, while Ben watched him die in the darkness! All that time Ben clung to him and begged him to stay! Nathan never said a word about trying to get out of the deal that kept Ben alive!

You didn’t say anything either! Ben’s fury turned on the spirit within. All that time you were offering to save him! You never even told me that you were the reason he was going to die!

How powerful you believe me to be. It was your choice, not mine, to pursue the harvesters into their tunnels. The Ophan was recovered safely before then.

You could have told me! You could have warned me what we were walking into!

Something you knew at the time. You didn’t want me to tell you. You didn’t want me to speak at all.

But you… I… I mean… you could have…

Ben didn’t know what to say.

Watch now.

Ben couldn’t look away if he wanted to.

“I followed a path of traps blindly,” Nathan said. “My eyes were opened too late.”

The light from Nathan’s eyes was bright now. It caught the dust in ice blue sparks that winked in and out between them. Nathan stood tall, and Ben could hear the whisper of Nathan’s wings. They stretched forward as they reached into sight. They were warm and welcoming, offering shelter with the gesture.

“It is I who am blinded,” Samuel moaned. “I cannot tell friend from foe.”

Nathan closed the distance between them. He dropped to his dusty knee, bringing himself to eye level with Samuel. “I cannot fathom how far from light I would be, were my Elise not safe out there in the world.” His voice was so warm, so gentle. “Everything would seem a threat.”

Watch him offer this hateful creature the understanding he never offered you.

Samuel said nothing. His wings pulled in tighter, collapsing to nearly nothing without feathers to give them shape. They looked so impossibly frail.

“I know that I would be utterly lost.” Nathan slid a hand up beside Samuel’s face, and pushed gray hair away from streaked cheeks. “My only safety is spoken by her lips, bathed in her light.”

A gentle wind stirred around them, pushing the dust into frantic swirls. Nathan’s wings extended forward a little more. They closed tenderly around Samuel.

Ben could feel Nathan’s presence gathering now, sparking in the air around them like those little flashing motes of dust. He could smell fresh–cut violets. As the smell deepened, he caught little bits of spice beneath that, too.

Not so bitter, now. Not like when Nathan was hurting. Most of the spices, Ben couldn’t identify. Ben recognized a subtle bite that reminded him of cinnamon, and a sort of lavender scent that was peppery too. The more he breathed in, the more he wanted to breathe in. That scent was so comforting, and so was the sight of those brilliant feathers.

Ben remembered those wings wrapping around him, right down the stairs from here. Wrapping around him, and making it seem all right to let go. Coaxing him out of his life, and then pulling away. That night, that comfort dropped away from Ben abruptly. Those wings tucked behind the angel, leaving Ben in complete confusion.

Samuel sighed. He was breathing in that rich warm scent too. Ben could see the little boy relaxing, the way Ben had under the shelter of Nathan’s wings.

“Dear little brother Samuel.” Nathan bent forward, and his hand rested on Samuel’s shoulder. “Let me help you accept these things.” His head dipped low, until their foreheads nearly touched. “Let me quiet them for a time, and strengthen your spirit in their wake.”

The air was electric, now, charged with the presence of Nathan’s spirit. Samuel shivered. What remained of his wings began to pull down. Surrender. Everything about that gesture spoke to Ben of surrender.



You have all you need. Pull the Makhvet’s power to you and strike the Sepulchre down!

Horror cut through the jealous ache in Ben’s chest. Ben hid from that vicious voice. He fled into his memory. He remembered how gentle that touch could be. He’d only felt that once, when Nathan’s hand settled on his head. He’d watched over and over since, the way Nathan helped people let go of the lives they’d already lost but couldn’t leave behind. That night, those warm brown wings curled around Ben.

It didn’t work. The memory of that moment was too much for him to face right now. He barely ever let himself think about it, and now he didn’t want to. Not while he was standing helpless, in the clutches of this evil thing. He didn’t want to be angry about a beautiful moment like this. He didn’t want to hate something that was so clearly right, and kind.

Why do you stay your hand?

Samuel lurched forward. He lifted himself to one knee in front of Nathan, mirroring the elder angel’s posture. Samuel’s wings flared out, throwing most of his remaining feathers into the air. Then they sank again, and tucked behind him. Their longest tips crossed each other in weary submission.

Nathan’s wings swept forward. As he lost sight of the angels, Ben glimpsed Samuel breathing in deeply. He caught a little of the peace closing over the other boy’s expression.

Has he ever shown such compassion for you?

Ben couldn’t see much of what Nathan wrapped in rich mahogany feathers. He could see parts of Samuel’s wings, though, tired and gray as they sank to the wounded floorboards. He heard a soft exhalation. Then he heard its echoes splitting into gentle music.

You, who never treated him so cruelly?

Samuel’s wings finally poked up above the shelter of Nathan’s. Delicate bones stretched them apart. Gray–blue skin pulled so thin it was nearly translucent. Samuel’s wings beat the air, just once. Ash and bits of discolored down tossed free, a flurry that dissolved like frost on a warm spring morning.

When Ben could finally see through the chaos, Samuel’s wings were settling. They tucked, black and glossy, back into Nathan’s shelter. Their blue sheen was restored.

You have only ever tried to do good in his eyes. To earn what? Trust? Care? Love?

Nathan’s wings pulled back now. His head was bowed over Samuel’s. Their foreheads still touched, and Nathan’s hand still rested on Samuel’s shoulder. Their eyes were closed. Their chests rose and fell in the same rhythm, their breath soft and even. Samuel looked so young, beneath that silver hair. He looked more than peaceful. There was something else— he looked…


Look how he dotes on his own kind no matter how they push him away.

And that was it, wasn’t it? No matter how hard Ben tried, he would never belong in Nathan’s world. He would never mean that much to Nathan. How could he? He couldn’t even comprehend knowing anybody as long as Nathan had known Samuel. Ben’s whole family hadn’t even lived that long. Heck, Ben wasn’t sure any of the races mixed up in his family tree had lived that long. Caring about Ben was like getting attached to a zombie hamster. No matter how many tricks Nathan taught him, he’d never be what they were. He’d never be forever.

Samuel’s eyes opened slowly. They were pure and brilliant white again, with just a touch of powder blue tinting the edges. They had lost their madness, at least for now. They gazed into Nathan’s, looking like they truly saw him for the first time.

Samuel’s face ducked next to Nathan’s, so they rested cheek to cheek. His small arms clasped Nathan’s neck, a childish hug that flung Samuel straight at Nathan’s chest. He buried his face in Nathan’s shoulder, then, and wept.

This is how he loves.

Nathan’s arms held Samuel close to him. They curled carefully around Samuel’s fragile body. Nothing like the way they’d crushed Ben to Nathan’s ribs, when Nathan threw himself on the proverbial grenade. How had Ben mistaken that gesture for anything else?

They didn’t say anything. Nathan just let Samuel cry. Nathan’s eyelashes rested gently on pale cheeks. He left his head bowed. His wings still stretched forward, ready to protect them both. He put a hand to the back of Samuel’s head, holding it there as Samuel cried.

Has he ever extended such comfort to you?

I… I think… I mean, he…

There was the memory of that night again. The memory of those wings around him. The comfort Ben felt as he rose away from that weary, struggling corpse…

Only when he tried to end you. Only then, and never afterwards.

Please stop this.

Ben didn’t want to fight any more. He begged the spirit with everything he had left. He was too broken to care about pride. He knew what he had to do. He just couldn’t face it yet.

Please. I can’t take any more. Just get me out of here.

There was such a long silence inside Ben’s head. When the voice stirred again, its silver tones were muted. When it spoke, it sounded disappointed. Ben didn’t care about that either. He didn’t care about anything right now but getting away from here. With all his heart, he just wanted to go home.

As you wish.

Part Fourteen

Nathan stepped out of the elevator, and into a darkened hall.

The last of the hall lights had gone out again. The bulb was missing. That was no surprise. He walked past a corroded grate without glancing at it, and ignored the rustling that followed him up to his door.

Nathan fished his keys out of his pocket. He slipped them into the door. The lock didn’t click. Nathan stopped. Heat rushed towards his eyes, and they flooded with the spirit’s vision. Nothing suspicious there. He slid his hand onto the doorknob, and accepted the lingering impressions it held.

No one else had touched the door recently. The only angelic presence left here was his own. Beyond that, the only echoes were Ben’s. Nathan withdrew his fingers quickly, before too much could reach him. There was enough turmoil in him right now without accepting any more. He supposed it was possible that he’d forgotten to lock the door. He’d gotten so used to the boy locking up at every opportunity.

Nathan pushed the door in, and headed straight for the kitchen. The lights were off. Nothing unusual about that, especially when Ben was in a mood.

Hunger made itself the first priority by gnawing hard at Nathan’s guts. He’d expended a lot of power tonight, and in challenging surroundings. He would expend far more before the night was out. The very thought sent fresh complaints through his body. Its stores were already depleted.

Protein, calcium, precious fats and sugars. Milk. He could already taste it. Potassium, salt, oils. He grabbed a handful of cashews from the bowl on the dining room table, and stuffed as many into his mouth as it would hold. Heme, god, heme, replacing all that blood was such a bitch without it.

Nathan yanked the refrigerator open. He didn’t have time to cook, so he grabbed a few beef sticks from the back. Those things lasted forever. Better than jerky. These days all the jerky was made of sirloin cuts and pretentious crap like that. These off–brand sticks were still made of rendered heart and other organs. That’s what he needed. Refuse meat that was either boiled off the bone or never fully drained. It was packed with nearly everything that made a body run.

Nathan swallowed the cashews, and washed them down with milk from the carton. Then he tore into the beef sticks. His teeth caught the tightly rolled packaging, and he spat plastic onto the counter. The kid would mind that. Nathan brushed off the thought. No time. He’d deal with that mess later.

Still chewing on the first stick, he put a few extra sticks in his pockets. On impulse, he added a few of Ben’s string cheese packets as well. He told himself he’d replace them. Another swig of milk. His body screamed at him for more calcium.

Then his eyes fell to the middle shelf, on the foil–covered baking dish. It had been left there, its wrapping untouched.

Nathan stood there with the door open, unable to tear his eyes away. He didn’t put these thoughts or feelings into words. He let them pass through, unresisted and unacknowledged, until the moment passed. Then the guilt set in. The memory of that muffled wail behind Ben’s door. Best to leave it be.

How many times had he clung to that mantra? What was it supposed to mean? Best for whom?

That strange, creative lasagna had been delicious. Ben had eaten some that night, too, complaining the whole time about how he worked so hard on something and then had to rush to get it down. Angry or not, at least Ben had eaten something then. Nathan could always tell how badly Ben was doing by how little the boy was eating. The more Ben gave up on life, the more he gave up on its trappings.

Wasn’t that what he was supposed to do?

Nathan closed the refrigerator door. His spirit was too close to the surface to put up with that shit. This skipped meal wasn’t a kid accepting his reality and letting go. This was just a kid in pain. Nathan turned and headed for the hall. His eyes tugged toward the nearly–empty corkboard as he reached the living room. Dinner’s in the fridge. He’d left the note there to remind Ben of the food. They obviously both knew where the lasagna was, but sometimes a little prodding got Ben past his moping.

A note wouldn’t do any good, though, if Ben never left his room.

As Nathan passed the bookshelf, he nearly tripped over the volume of Cervantes. It had fallen out of its place, and lay splayed on the floor. He shook his head, and bent for the book. For all the messages Nathan speculated Ben might draw out of Don Quixote, the boy had found one he’d never expected. Nathan examined the volume, and straightened some of its crumpled pages. His eyes caught a passage as he passed it.

“Bear in mind, Sancho, that one man is no more than another, unless he does more than another; all these tempests that fall upon us are signs that fair weather is coming shortly, and that things will go well with us, for it is impossible for good or evil to last for ever; and hence it follows that the evil having lasted long, the good must be now nigh at hand.”

Nathan shut the book. Of course the boy identified with Don Quixote. It seemed stupid now, to have expected anything else. Nathan set the book on his desk. He lined its spine up against the desk’s edge, and looked at it for a moment before his sense of urgency returned.

The bare spots on the corkboard pulled at Nathan’s heart. He knew why he’d pulled the old notes down. It made sense in the moment. Now that everything was coming to an end, though, the gesture seemed unnecessary. Maybe even cruel. Those notes had been a comfort, and life had become too comfortable. None of that mattered, now that Esa was in reach. They could have remained.

Nathan stopped at the corkboard, and sighed.

He looked at the last remaining note.

He froze.

‘You’re free now. Go find Esa. Gone forever.’

Nathan grabbed Ben’s note off the corkboard. The pushpin clattered past his boot. He turned, and rushed to Ben’s door. He threw it open. It banged against its stopper. Nathan stepped into Ben’s room. The bed was made. The chair was empty.

Everything was as it always was, neatly arranged according to a system only Ben really understood. There was a sense of order to it, even though there was no real sense to how it was ordered. Nathan took silent inventory of everything. The boy’s closet and drawers were undisturbed. The possessions Yusom won for them were all here and accounted for.

Nathan’s eyes fell to the little desk by the door, and he stilled.

The little red suede bag was gone. Ben’s keys sat in its place.

“Oh, Ben.”

The breath went out of Nathan in one, sudden rush. He sat on Ben’s bed, and put his arms across his knees.

Nathan’s eyes fell to the little yellow note in his left hand. In his haste, he’d crumpled it a little. Carefully he smoothed it out again. Nathan’s fingertip came to rest against its edge. Nathan traced Ben’s handwriting with his eyes. Slowly, his finger slid down.

“Wherever you are,” Nathan whispered, “I hope it’s better than this.”

Nathan took a deep breath, and held it tightly. He let the air go, and slumped a little further forward. He’d delayed everything long enough, for everyone. He had to face his responsibilities now. Another breath, and he let his hands rest on his knees. He stood slowly. He left Ben’s room. He closed the door behind him, then leaned back against it. Everything he could, he let pass through him unresisted and unexamined. That was his way. If he accepted these things, he didn’t have to let them linger. He didn’t have to think them, or feel them, at all.

He drifted back to the front door. As he passed the wastebasket, his eyes fell to the dusty yellow notes wadded into a clump at the top. He tore his gaze away quickly. He traded the note he held from his left hand to his right, then reached across his chest. He tucked this last note into his inner coat pocket, and finally let it go.

Nathan opened the door, and stood in the doorway. His left hand rested on the door–frame, his right on the knob. He lowered his head, and took another tight breath. Then he straightened. He stepped out, and shut the door behind him.

He didn’t lock it. He didn’t see a reason to. Not anymore.

Part Fifteen


A house like any other, stamped down the cul–de–sac by God’s most generic cookie cutter. So much the same as any other that Ben would sometimes flee back to the wrong house, when he was very little.

As he got older, though, things got more and more tense in the household. As it did, the lawn got shaggy. Tension in the Levine family could be gauged by the length of that grass. By the time Ben’s life ended it had been as high as Dorik’s eyes, and neighbors were starting to complain.

Nobody let Ben use the mower, or he would have taken care of it himself. James used to do it. By the end, though, James was busy all the time. Too busy to take care of things around the house. Too busy to even be there, most of the time.

Ben hadn’t ever really known what busy looked like, until watching Nathan try to juggle spiritual warfare with a day to day job. He just knew his older brother left every chance he got. “Busy” never felt real to Ben, when James said it. Ben had been a relentless brat about it, and added to the problem. He wished he could take back every angry thing he said, all the certainty that James just didn’t want to be around. He felt so awful about everything he couldn’t take back. He wished he hadn’t left James thinking about it that way.

Sarah would never cut the lawn. Sarah hated the ‘boozhee’ suburban life, whatever that meant. She cut all her beautiful red–gold hair off and got so many piercings. Ben used to imagine her getting picked up by the big magnets in junkyards. Ben sighed. All the time he spent hating all the pink in her hand–me–downs, all the girly things he had to put up with. It seemed stupid how much he’d missed the girl who liked all those girly things at the same time.

Ben barely had any memories of that girl. She was soft, and nice, and he was mean to her once when she dressed him up. He hated that he was ever mean to her at all.

Thanks to cable TV, Ben knew a little more now, about the things that made her so angry. All the things she used to protest showed up on those comedy news shows. Without as much hostility in the way, Ben could make more sense of all those issues. Maybe he could even understand. He just didn’t think any of it was worth losing the happy person Sarah used to be. Maybe it was selfish, but Ben wished his opinion of her mattered more to her than society’s.

Dad was useless at housework. Dad’s projects never got finished anymore, so they just cluttered up the garage. Then Mom got a motorcycle, and it hardly squeezed in with the family SUV. Sarah called Mom’s bike a ‘rice burner,’ but they almost never had any rice, so Ben didn’t really get that either. By now he didn’t care. It was some kind of slang term, surrounded by more of those bad feelings. He just knew that his sister was super angry at his mom for buying it and ‘selling out.’

Ben remembered wondering, at the time, what she’d sold. He sighed. He could be such a stupid kid, sometimes. He hated that. He hated the sound of that motorcycle too, and all the other bikes that used to rumble around the cul–de–sac. Sarah did have a point. Those bikes were smelly and noisy.

His sister went further than Ben ever could, though. Sarah hated everything with an engine. She rode a mountain bike, when she wasn’t walking. It was usually propped up beside the driveway, leaning against the old scraggly tree that haunted Ben’s bedroom window. When the weather was nice like today’s was, Dorik was almost always tied up to that tree. He’d be waiting with his food and water bowls under Ben’s window, but sometimes he liked to run around it too. It didn’t matter how many times the chain got wound up around the trunk. Dorik never learned.

Every time Sarah’s bike got knocked over, Ben would catch hell. All she had to do was put it somewhere else, but she never did. Once in a while, when he was angry or lonely, Ben would kick it over himself. They always blamed him for what Dorik did anyway. It was always his fault, never the dog’s.

Dorik wasn’t here now, though. Neither was the big scraggly tree. That ugly tree had been mostly dead all of Ben’s life, so Ben knew he shouldn’t be surprised somebody finally cut it down. His parents used to get letters demanding they get rid of it themselves. Who had time to write all those letters? Ben never knew. They weren’t mailed. They were never even signed. Ben just fetched them out of the old squeaky mailbox. The Levines got almost as many letters about the tree as they did about the lawn.

There wouldn’t be any more letters. The lawn was so perfectly cut now. It looked so neat and even. There weren’t any clumps of crab grass in it. There was no room for thorny prickles lurking under lush green, laying in wait for soft–skinned knees. The garage was open, and it was so clean inside. Without Dad’s clutter, it could fit two generic–looking cars really easily.

There were people getting their groceries out of one of those cars. They looked comfortable and happy. They weren’t angry with each other about the money spent. They were chattering and helping each other out. Nobody was objecting to the meat or the imported fruit or anything.

They were strangers, and they couldn’t have been more wrong.

Ben’s throat tightened, and he blinked faster. The house was a new color, a pale shade of blue. No more peeling yellow paint on the garage. There were flowers and ornaments on the lawn. There was a cute little mailbox with his address on it. No more beat–up metal box, no more rusted door squealing protests every time Ben wrestled it open. No more flag hanging half–broken off its hinge.

Everything was all messed up. Every last thing. This was Ben’s house, but there was nothing left that used to make it home.

They’ve moved away. My family’s gone.

I can find them for you.

No. I told you already. I don’t want your help.

Ben turned away. He could move on his own right now, and he wasn’t giving that up for anything.

I just wanted to see them one more time before I left.

Ben turned away from the house, and found his way back up the cul–de–sac. Despite everything, a kind of peace was settling into his heart as he put the place behind him.

Maybe he’d just run out of sad. The misery of today just left him no energy with which to be upset. Maybe it was something else, though. Some part of him had never really come to terms with the fact that his old life was really over. It was easier to wrap his head around that idea, now.

You’ve never been out of this city on your own before. Can you even find your own way out?

Ben slid his hands into his pockets, and shrugged lightly. “If I keep going in one direction, I’ll get out eventually.” It felt good, hearing his own voice. “I think I’ll just pick a direction and go there.”

The wind picked up a little, and tossed his hair back away from his face. Ben faced into it, and smiled. “That way seems nice.”

The way he was going led south. He could smell the reek coming off the canals. He’d never been that far south, only north and east. Ben watched his shadow get smaller and smaller, then longer and longer as he crossed each yellow street lamp.

“Who knows?” Ben’s smile lingered. “Maybe I can even do some good with this whole post–mortality thing.”

Ben skipped past a few cracks in the sidewalk. He stopped for a red light, waiting for the pedestrian crossing to change. There were buttons, but Ben had figured out a long time ago that the buttons didn’t really do anything. Whether or not he pressed them the light would change and the walk sign would pop up, and it always took forever.

Forever didn’t seem like that big of a deal anymore.

“I could pull kittens out of trees, or bring families together, or something.” Ben grinned. He remembered an old show on the Rerun Channel, Highway to Heaven. Boy, would that have been a different show with Ben! “Until I turn into a rotty corpse, I mean,” Ben added.

He’d totally watch that show, though. The rotting zombie with a heart of gold. Maybe he’d save people’s souls, or teach people the true meanings of things. Everybody on TV always seemed to need a lesson in the true meaning of Christmas around this time of year. He could figure it out, given enough time. Frosty and Rudolph managed. “Think I could get on a greeting card someday?”

The spirit didn’t answer. It never laughed at his jokes anyway.

Ben shook his head, and crossed the street. This was going to be one of the worst parts of being alone with that thing. Besides all the creepy pronouncements, and the hobby it made of grinding home how lonely Ben was, anyway. Ben sighed as he walked. How would something like that manage to crack a smile? He’d probably never know. Ben kicked another rock. If he had to have an uninvited skullguest, he thought, couldn’t he get one with a sense of humor?

Oh well. He had to put up with this thing. If he didn’t, the spirit was clearly going to punish innocent people for it. So Ben had to go on living, but he didn’t have to keep getting his heart broken. He didn’t have to keep on hoping for things that would never happen. He didn’t have to keep trying to go back to things that were never there to begin with. Everything else had moved on. It was Ben’s turn, now.

Ben stopped, and looked up into the murky yellow sky. There was a better view at the edge of town, where he— no, where Nathan lived. That big plate window had really given him a nice view.

Still. The vacations his family took were mostly day trips. Nobody had time to stay the night anywhere at the end. Most of what Ben remembered in the night sky, all his life, looked more like this. Just a mucky mess of thick smog and the reflections of streetlamps.

“There are things I want to do, you know?” Ben started walking again, one foot in front of the other. Each step carried him further and further from everything he really knew. “Like, see some stars. Real bright ones, not the little sprinkles you see around here.”

Does your angel mean this much to you? So much that, denied his approval, you would rather be a vagabond with neither purpose nor power?

“You said it yourself,” Ben said, the last echoes of that smile fading away. “You picked the wrong kid.” Ben shrugged again. “I could have told you that, all along. I’m never going to be a warrior for God or mankind or anybody.”

Ben ran out of forwards at the next intersection. He stopped, and thought about it. He picked left.

“I’m a loser.” Ben meandered down the road until he could face the wind again, and then bore right again at the next turn. “Death doesn’t make me any less of a loser. It just makes me a dead loser.”

Such a waste.

In order to waste something, though, Ben thought, it had to be worthwhile in the first place. Ben just hadn’t been. For whatever reason, everybody left him. His brother and sister stopped playing with him early on. His Dad was almost never home. According to Mom he worked late every chance he got, because he didn’t want to be around. Maybe that was why Ben thought James was doing that too. Mom was one to talk. She’d never heard of a charity or political function she didn’t want to attend. If he was really honest with himself, Ben was glad she stopped dragging him along to those.

Only one person hadn’t gone away, and Ben was pretty sure Charlie would have if he hadn’t had the book. She was super excited about Grampa Joe’s journal, and she’d never been that excited to see Ben before the day he showed it to her. It’s not like he didn’t know about that at the time. It was just close enough, at that point, to have anybody seem like they wanted to spend time with him.

When they found Esa, Nathan was going to leave Ben too. More than that, he was going to have to get rid of Ben. As scared as Ben was of being alone, he was even more scared of where he might be going afterwards. He just wasn’t ready to face what might be waiting for him this time.

That was such a scary thought. Ben couldn’t put it out of his mind. Standing in the cult house made it hard not to think about the one time Nathan had really been kind to him. It made him remember Nathan putting his hand on Ben’s head, and helping his soul get free. He remembered watching his broken little body dying underneath him as he rose away from it, and that thought just kept on looping.

When Nathan freed them, the souls always went up. Nathan didn’t just help good people, either. He helped people no matter what they’d done, no matter how bad they were. They all looked peaceful, and they all went up. So going upwards couldn’t mean they were all going to Heaven, could it? Some of them were really bad people. Some of them had to be going to Hell.

Hell. Ben had been hearing stories about Hell from his Grampa Joe since he was a little kid. Nathan never talked about it, but Reikha said the Ophan spoke in a Hell dialect. So Hell did exist. If it existed, Hell had to be there for somebody, didn’t it? If it was there for anybody, somebody who’d killed an angel and gotten another one hurt had to be pretty high on the guest list.

Ben wasn’t brave enough to find out right now. Maybe someday he’d get over it, the way he was getting over his fear of being too far from home. He’d begged Nathan, at the beginning, not to end his strange unlife. Nathan had given him time to get ready, time to come to terms with the fact that he’d died.

It was supposed to be a few days, and it had turned into six long years. All that time, and Ben still wasn’t ready. He wasn’t sure he ever would be.

Your grandfather would be so ashamed of you. He searched for this power all his life.

Ben kicked a stone, and watched it hop when it hit a crack in the pavement. That could actually be true. Grampa Joe really had been searching for something all his life, Ben knew that much. He’d heard a lot about that through the walls. That search was part of why Dad didn’t want his own father around. Ben learned early on that talking about Grampa Joe’s travels made Dad upset for days.

What really got Ben in trouble, though, was repeating anything Grampa Joe ever said about their family angel.

He placed the key to it in your hands.

Ben stopped. No way. Ben shook off the thought. The thing inside him couldn’t be what Grampa Joe was talking about. Their family angel was just a story. It was a nice fairy tale that promised someone would look out for them. If Ben’s family angel were real, he would have met it by now. Ben started walking again. It was just an idea. Besides, in all the stories the Levine family angel was a force of good, not a lying, manipulative, cruel, jerkfaced—

Now you squander his life’s work in his memory.

“Yeah, okay, whatever,” Ben kicked another pebble, but it ran out of concrete to bounce on. As he got further and further from the big buildings, the road had less and less sidewalk, and more shoulder. “I’m sure you were just waiting until now to tell me that. I’m so sure it has nothing to do with all the talking I did about Grampa Joe when Nathan was dying, or me dwelling on him now.” Ben rolled his eyes. “Puh–leeze.”

Isn’t it telling…

Ben tried to shut out the voice. He concentrated on the road ahead. There were some warehouses along one side, but the side Ben walked on was pretty empty. Parking lots. Why even park there? Ben wondered. What was even around worth parking at? But there were always a few cars in a parking lot, weren’t there? Even when he couldn’t figure out why anybody would want to be there…

You had the angel in your debt.

Ben tried to distract himself with something bigger. That night, that horrible night underground, Nathan had made a demand of him. Nathan had made him promise not to use the spirit’s power to save him. Ben sniffed. Ben had always wondered why Nathan wanted to die rather than accept his help. Maybe Nathan felt guilty, because all of that night started with Nathan trying to get rid of him. Ben decided he’d rather see it that way. That was as close to an apology as Ben figured he’d ever get.

Amidst all the awfulness of it, there was a minor victory for Ben, though. He’d learned just enough to know he could make his own demands once he agreed. A one–sided trade like that created a debt that the angel had to honor if Ben called him on it. And Ben called him on it. Too bad he hadn’t ever asked why they’d come down there. Then again, did he really want to know?

You could have learned anything you wanted from him.

All Ben had really wanted was to keep the angel talking, though. Down there in the dark, Ben couldn’t deal with the terror he felt whenever Nathan fell silent. That night he was in too much of a panic to think of good questions. He couldn’t really think about anything except how quickly the angel was dying. Everything had gone so wrong so fast, and it had been so hard to keep from giving in.

Maybe he shouldn’t have fought it. Even if it did always take a terrible price, the spirit did tend to give him what he wanted— and what he wanted more than anything was for Nathan to be okay…

No. No, if he was totally honest with himself, what he wanted more than anything was for Nathan not to leave him the way everybody else did.

That’s why he had to go away, so they could save Esa. Ben knew if he stayed in the city, he would eventually give in. He wasn’t very strong. He wasn’t as unselfish as he wanted to be. Nathan was wrong to believe in him. Ben was losing the battle inside, and he knew it. He’d eventually cave and let the spirit do whatever it took to make Nathan stay.

You had him at your mercy. You could have learned how to do that yourself.

“I’m not like that,” Ben sighed. “I’m just weak sometimes. I have bad thoughts, but I didn’t really want to force him. I never wanted to force him. I just wanted him to like me.” Ben rubbed his face. He blinked stinging eyes. “Seriously, does it really take force to get anybody to like me?”

You cannot lie to me.

“Clearly.” Ben kicked another rock.

You have had questions since the first time we spoke. Yet you still did not ask him how it was he found you. You still did not ask him why he spared your life.

“I know why he spared my life,” Ben said softly. “That’s why I’m leaving.”

I do not think you do.

“What I said, when he first tried to set my soul free of you.” Ben thought all the way back to those first few memories of Nathan. He still only had distorted pieces of the night, melting together like dreams. One thing he did remember, though, was what he said, and the look in Nathan’s eyes when those words landed.

“I’m nothing,” Ben repeated. “I’ll be nothing forever.”

The parking lots and warehouses seemed to stretch on as far as he could see, but Ben just kept following the road.

“I know from what I saw when he was dying. He said the same thing, when the angel inside took him over. He knew how bad that felt.” Ben sighed, and stopped for a minute to close his eyes. “Only, I had a chance to be something. I had a soul, and look what I did with it.” Ben bit his lip, hard, then let it go. “He never had that. I think maybe, if I were him, I might hate me too.”

If the answer does not trouble you, why not ask the angel?

Ben opened his eyes, and faced into the wind again. The wind led him onto the right fork of the road as it split.

“You just don’t get me at all,” he murmured. “Maybe I know it in my heart. It would still hurt like crazy to hear it.” Ben shook his head. “It’s better this way. You can’t use me to get him into any more trouble this way.”

I don’t use you. Everything you’ve gotten yourself into, you’ve done willingly. With your own mind, and your own will, you’ve permitted all of it. The wounds the world around you suffered were inflicted by your own hand.

“Not the hospital,” Ben snapped, irritated by the accusation. “You took me there all on your own!”

You told me you wanted to see them. You told me to take you over and do what had to be done. You begged me to show you more. Once they were in my brother’s custody, I had to move you.

“Pull the other one,” Ben mimicked Devon, “It’s got bells on.”

I needed a living vessel to cross the threshold of my brother’s trap. The trap was driven by the power of its victims. Even a tendril of pure spirit so powerful as mine, even so much as I might reach out to perceive with from afar, would have created an inexorable pull.

“Too bad they destroyed it,” Ben said bitterly, “I’d go kill myself there just to see if it trapped you.”

You can’t kill yourself. I won’t let you.

“Well, so long as I control my feet,” Ben looked down at his bright blue sneakers. “I’m following them in this direction.”

Part Sixteen

Jason Dean closed the door. He locked it, and took a breath. He needed a breath, before turning to face the room.

Soft babbling reached him first. Some of the syllables almost sounded like speech. Most were just noise. He caught a few familiar words in the mess. “…baue ah’hv alqem…” The way they were put together, they made no sense. They were just fragments leaking out of a disordered mind.

“Iyid,” the endearment escaped him before his mind caught up. Darling. Dearest. The sound seemed to comfort her. Her comfort eased him, and brought his spirit seeping up through his tired mind. Jason Dean gave way gratefully. From within, Amib sought his truest love.

Seleste. It took so long for the name to reach him. True to the boy’s word, her decline had slowed, but it hadn’t stopped. She knelt next to the nearest of the twin beds, stroking their guest’s bandaged arm.

She stopped when Amib drew near. The way she looked up at him, shining eyes peeking out from beneath platinum hair, made her seem playful. It brought back moments he treasured. Moments that got harder for him to hang on to, as those eyes dimmed.

“You haven’t eaten.” Amib pulled Jason’s tie from his neck, and tossed it aside. “You must eat, love.” Nothing in this little room had been disturbed. He’d been gone all day. Had she even moved?

“It’s just a body,” Seleste sighed. She could barely muster the energy to speak. “My sister needs me.”

“She needs you to remain strong,” Amib murmured. He opened the mini–fridge. He picked out one of the puddings. It was easy enough on her for a start. “Her life depends on it.” He set the pudding out on the counter. She couldn’t tolerate it if it was too cold.

A terrible chill set into his bones. Amib took no chances. He pulled his pocket knife out, and put a thin slice down his fingertip. He flung his blood at the walls. Wards, drawn all the way to the ceiling, lit in response. He checked each one, not letting the wound close until he was certain they were all intact. Ceiling, walls, and floor. All were sealed tight against intrusion of any kind.

Living with his virtue in service to another had left Amib deeply paranoid. So had orders delivered in the middle of the night, moving him and Seleste from place to place on a moment’s notice. He could still muster insight into other living minds when he needed to, but the effort drained him. He’d handed so much of himself over to someone— to something— else.

“I need to stand,” Seleste whispered. From the bashful way she said it, Amib knew she needed more help than that. He got her to her feet, and held her up. She tugged on his sleeve. She didn’t need to. He was already turning her gently, and delivering her to their little bathroom.

He closed the door for her and waited. He put his back to the door, and watched his guest sleep. Carefully he avoided naming her, even in his thoughts. He couldn’t risk invoking her. He couldn’t afford anything that might lead a watchful eye his way.

His guest was sleeping through the night now, at least. During his early days watching over her, she’d been a nightmare. When her living mind was in control, she was calm. For a few minutes at a time she’d function, almost lucid. That never lasted long. Her wounded spirit would always well up, and she would fall into one of her fits. She’d scream, and she’d wail. She’d cry so loudly and so brokenly that he sometimes dreamed of smothering her just for relief.

Somehow, the one he served could hide her noise. Somehow, her cries reached no further than the room’s walls. They never left him, though. They haunted his every waking moment, until he buried himself deep in Jason’s mind.

Despite their strange concealment, Amib had never been able to feel safe. He always felt immense pressure, with the Death on his heels. He’d begged his tormentor, over and over, to let him move their captive Aspect out of the Death’s domain. For some reason, they were trapped in this wretched city. They were never allowed out of its shadow, no matter how Amib begged.

Amib scowled at the squalor around him. He worked so hard, at his firm. He was at the top of his field, the best insurance investigator they’d ever had. He had more money than he knew how to spend, because he had so little to spend it on. He could have kept his wife in such better comfort than this. He had no control over where they hid. Orders sizzled through the bond of service he’d sworn, and he went where he was told.

A flush behind him, and running water, prompted Amib away from the door. He busied himself with the pudding. Seleste peeked out of the door, making sure no eyes were on her before she slipped out.

Amib didn’t need to look. Nicole’s living mind was focused on the effort to walk back to the bed, and embarrassment that anyone might see her try. The circulation was coming back to her limbs, though, and her balance would hold. Somewhere beneath that living mind, Seleste peered out even more meekly. She was focused on their guest.

When she neared the bed, Amib slipped behind her. He wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her up in the embrace. He set his chin on her shoulder, and breathed her in. There were faint traces of her scent still lingering on her skin. Too weak for his living mind to identify, but more than enough to sustain his spirit.

“Hello,” Seleste whispered. She reached back enough to cup his cheek in her bony hand. “You’re sad. Why so sad?”

“I’m not sad, you silly girl,” Amib murmured. “I’m grateful. For every moment, I’m grateful.”

Seleste took a deep breath. “You smell like sad.”

“It clings to me, sometimes.” Amib shut his eyes, and leaned into her touch. “Pay it no mind.”

Their guest stirred. She whimpered. She reached out into empty air, and opened her eyes.

“I have to help,” Seleste squirmed. Her hand dropped away.

Hatred burned deep in Amib’s abandoned heart. “Leave her be,” he muttered. “She’ll quiet in time.”

“I can’t.” Seleste’s eyes half–closed. Her voice split. “She’s so lonely.” The words were singsong, distracted music. “Someone’s calling her, but she can’t find the sound.” Seleste pulled at his arms, trying to pry them off. “It’s too quiet in here. I can’t find the sounds for her.”

“You mustn’t find the sounds, love,” Amib tightened his grip on her. “Those sounds will lead Death to us.”

“Not death,” Seleste whispers. “She used to call for death. Now she calls for love.”

“Give her love, then,” Amib finally relented. “Maybe she will quiet again.”

“She’s full of quiet,” Seleste drifted away from him, and settled next to the bed. “So full of quiet I can barely hear her anymore.” Seleste took Esa’s hand in both of hers, and pulled it close. “Shh, shh. It’s all right. I’m here. My sister. I’m here.” She fell into her babble again. Discordant syllables folded over themselves in a broken, senseless song.

At first he’d been relieved. Seleste’s single–minded focus on their guest took the pressure off of him. Finding victims for her, and ensuring they wouldn’t lead back to her, had become next to impossible in the modern age. It tore at his heart to do it, but his devotion to her used to demand it.

He’d chosen that devotion over all else, when Seleste fell from grace. He’d long since perverted his virtue to serve her, and never regretted that choice. In order to give her what she wanted, he had to turn away from his own insight. He had to abandon the better parts of his nature. They understood the twisted futility of what she did.

Under his tormenter’s piercing gaze, he’d been forced to confront the final depths of that choice. That vicious child brought him face to face with what he’d avoided, and wouldn’t let him look away. When all his excuses failed him, he was left with nothing more than his unwillingness to let her go.

If anyone else had come to her door, he could have justified his escape. Not that spirit. Not Acceptance. He knew this angel would bind her from harming others, and free her from her vicious cycle of denial. Neither Amib nor Acceptance could control what befell Seleste from there. She might finally accept her mistakes, and be freed of the need to punish herself. She might finally accept her ruin. She might refuse, and destroy herself in the process. She might live on in peace, or she might slip away from eternity. No matter what happened, Seleste would finally be freed.

Amib needed his darkest, most vicious self to overcome that understanding. He drew on the most twisted part of him, the part that ate away at cohesion of mind, to keep her with him as long as she might last. There was no way back for him once he’d fallen that far.

His choice came at a terrible cost, as his walls and ceilings could attest. It threw shadows on the world around him, and brought threats out of his dreams. He bore it all. He embraced it all. As much as she did, this cost belonged to him.

He watched Seleste coo over their guest. His heart twisted in his chest, a burning shard of ice. His haven. His ruin. Life after life, he’d slowly contorted himself through the doomed effort to manage her bloodlust. How brightly and how beautifully she fell to earth, fleeing from her pain! She found no escape here. She needed to punish herself, but she couldn’t see herself. She was the virtue of innocent faith, but in her fading eyes she was innocent no longer. She needed innocents to take her place.

He’d labored to feed that need in quiet denial, pretending there was no other alternative but to tend to her in her pain. He pretended it was their punishment for following the Morning Star, that this endless cycle was their inescapable fate. For millenia, this pretense held his white wings aloft. It let him believe some shred of his glory still remained. Stripped of this denial, only tormented devotion remained. Amib would keep her for as long as any part of her reached him. He made no more pretense of it. He would cling to her even as it killed her. Only then would he let her fade away, and follow her as swiftly as fate allowed.

Amib’s jaw clenched. Maybe he would seek out the Death then. It seemed fitting, to demand his end from the one who set it in motion.

Their guest cried out again. She was restless tonight. Seleste’s babble grew a little louder. Her hands clasped tighter around their guest’s trembling hand.

“It’s not working so well,” Seleste murmured. “It’s weaker. It’s going far away.”

Amib picked up the pudding, and the small plastic spoon he’d pried from its lid. He settled next to Seleste, and tried to catch her eyes with his. “You must eat,” he urged again. “You will always grow weaker if you don’t eat.” He dipped the spoon in the pudding, and offered it to her. She blushed, and shied away. For a moment he could see her spirit again, ducking behind that gaunt face.

“Come on,” he urged, a smile creeping into his expression. “It’s good.”

She moved like a forest creature. She eyed the spoon, and him, and he could see some echo of ancient mischief in those silver eyes. She nibbled at it a little, then snapped back away from him. His heart fluttered. He left the spoon in place until she neared again. He waited until just the right moment, then thrust it between her lips.

Her eyes widened, but she licked what remained off the spoon. She giggled, and took the pudding from him at last.

“You should eat too, then,” she mumbled, between bites of pudding.

“I’m getting all the sustenance I need.” He leaned on the bed, and watched her. Food was the furthest thing from his mind. He’d eaten at his desk. She didn’t realize how late it was, or how long he’d taken to come home. The hours were bad enough. The route necessary to reach her was becoming more and more elaborate, and he knew that would cause problems of its own. It was all worth it, when he watched the sparks in her fading eyes.

He regretted nothing.

“Why are you so frightened?” Seleste paused, licking her lips uncertainly.

“Because I have everything I want,” Amib breathed the words reverently, teasing a little bit of pudding out of her platinum hair. “It’s terrifying, how perfect you are.”

For a moment her eyes fixed on him. For just a half a heartbeat, they burned. He had faith that she saw him, then. He returned that look with every shred of love he had. It was damaged, and corrupted, and selfish, but his heart belonged to her. He would always belong to her.

Then she was looking down at the pudding, and running her finger around the empty cup.

“You can have more,” Amib whispered. “You can have anything you want.”

“I want nothing,” Seleste mumbled.

English was such a tricky language. Amib wished he could feel the intent behind those words. Did she want nothingness, did she feel she wanted for nothing? Was she incapable of wanting? Were all her wants fulfilled? Whatever she meant, he would deliver it to her in an instant. He shivered. Even if she wanted it all to end. He would reach into those beautiful pink sockets, and curl his fingers around her shining eyes. He would rip them out, drink the blood that welled up until the last of her spirit faded from it, then die curled around the gap in eternity she left behind.

Whatever she wanted she would always have, so long as it was by his hand.

“The quiet,” Seleste tugged on his sleeve. “It’s stronger inside, but it’s weaker outside.”

Amib blinked. He stretched out his senses, and recoiled. Whispers reached him, faint and frail. They snaked in from other rooms, and the lobby down below. Their hiding places were usually a rare haven from the background murmur of living minds. Why were these whispers penetrating now?

Seleste grinned. The teeth she had left gleamed in the room’s dim light. She swayed, and clutched tight to their guest’s hand.

“I can hear the music,” Seleste sang. “Can you hear it, sister?” She crawled into the bed before Amib could stop her. She curled beside their guest like a child. Then she coiled a possessive arm around her sister Aspect, and ruined that illusion. “It’s all full of songs,” Seleste clutched her sister Aspect tightly. “Hungry ghosts and shattered songs.”

Their guest didn’t answer. She didn’t stir. The bandage around her wrist began to darken. Amib stared in horror at the growing stain. He stepped in close, though Seleste’s free hand swatted at him. He fought past Seleste’s interference to touch the other Aspect’s face, and tried to rouse her. The color in her skin was draining away.

“I can hear it hearing you,” Seleste giggled.

Amib recoiled, and sat on the bed. He looked towards the door. What threats might be approaching? A million panicked spectres flew through his shredded mind. They should escape, but could they? Amib examined his wards again, his angelic vision still catching their glow. Would they be enough?

Would anything be enough?

Amib sighed, and sank to his knees beside the bed. He hung his head, and begged for something to cut through the silence in his heart.

His tormentor was their protector. Only it could keep them hidden.

Amib didn’t dare defy that spirit. He’d received no instructions. All he could do was wait.

Part Seventeen

They sat in silence, perched on a street curb. Nathan pried the last bit of a beef stick from between his teeth, greedily sucking the morsel down. His body’s cries were quieter now, but they still keened. There was no helping it. Half–awake and struggling, Nathan wasted more energy than he should. His body paid the price.

Samuel took longer to finish his food. A smaller vessel, with so little stored, couldn’t have been easy to manage. It wasn’t easy to replenish either.

Distantly Nathan wondered how young Samuel had been, the first time he tried to strike out on his own. He wondered how many facilities Samuel landed in, along the way. Nathan had managed to stay under the radar, for the most part, by finding street families to hide in early on. He doubted Samuel’s crazed mind could have managed the same. That angel barely tolerated humanity in its best vessel.

Samuel flicked a quick gaze in Nathan’s direction. A reflexive flinch— Samuel curled a shoulder in, putting it between Nathan and his food. Nathan recognized the gesture. He turned his head away, and leaned further from Samuel. An open show of disinterest would help. So would breaking this silence.

“I’ll be able to help you,” Nathan murmured. “Better than I could before.” He wasn’t truly sure how many eyes Ben’s puppeteer had on him, but he knew he’d think more clearly with the boy out of play.

Samuel finished his last piece of cheese, and stifled an uneasy burp. “Just don’t get in my way. You should know your bargain means nothing to me.”

“It’s over now,” Nathan shook his head. “The only point of that bargain was to keep Esa alive long enough for us to find her.” Nathan stood, and waited for Samuel. “It knows, though, I think. It’s moved the puppet out of my reach.” There was no point telling Samuel they had to hurry. He knew nothing but sheer necessity was delaying the black–winged angel now.

“Past this point there is no peace,” Samuel murmured. It was an understatement. Nathan could hear arguments through thin walls and half–open windows. Distant pops reached them, shots from small–caliber guns. This far past Pine Hills, sirens wouldn’t chase them down. “I can hear her song, but it is broken.”

Ahead, the tumble of half–assed subdivisions were dubbed ‘The Needles.’ Few agreed why. Well–off residents of the upper city assumed the name had a whimsical association with Pine Hills, describing the narrow streets clustered with residential towers. Those towers could look needle–like themselves, threaded together by stitches of clothesline and cords. For comfortable people in comfortable homes, that was explanation enough.

Nathan knew better.

Nathan shifted uneasily, rubbing each foot in its boot. That pulled his eyes down. It had been so long since he’d done that. His soles were always thick and strong, now. He never let them suffer any significant wear for long without some sort of repair. He glanced to Samuel’s dirty linen wrappings, then pulled his eyes away.

“So much chaos,” Samuel mumbled. He closed his eyes, and their light receded. “I can’t see into it. Not even from here.”

“We don’t need to see,” Nathan reached out, and gently rested a hand on Samuel’s shoulder. His wings opened above them, and he tried to settle Samuel’s heart. “You’re just lazy,” he teased gently. “I’ve fought you enough to know. Your virtue doesn’t depend entirely on foresight. Even if you can’t see the critical blows, you have an innate sense of them too.” He squeezed Samuel’s shoulder gently. “It’s a bitch when I manage to slip out of your sight, and still have to scramble out from under your blade.”

Samuel didn’t ease. His wings lifted, and shuddered behind him. “We’ll see.” He stepped forward, then broke into a run.

Nathan followed. His longer stride kept him at pace with Samuel’s sprint. He did his best to follow that erratic run. Samuel’s path was erratic for a reason. The slightest deviation could—

Nathan never got to finish the thought. He was flat on his back before his senses recovered. Samuel was face–down near his boots. Nathan lifted his ringing head, and put a hand to his forehead. Wet, and sticky. He brought his hand down, and stared at the blood in his palm.

“Wards,” Samuel coughed. He spat a little blood, then managed to stand. He swayed, and mustered up what healing he could. Blood smoked away from his pale skin, giving up its substance to support the recovery. “Concussive, that one. Air hammer.”

Nathan stood, careful not to lose the blood in his palm. He whispered a command to it. “Adapt.” He flicked the blood at the pavement in front of him. For a moment nothing happened. Then the wards accepted his shifting energies, and picked up a pale blue glow. His blood snaked through their outlines, rolling in thin drips along the sidewalk. Slowly it revealed them to living eyes.

“These are obscenely dangerous,” Nathan muttered. “Who would leave something like this out in a public street?” Anyone with them would have been killed. A human body couldn’t set them off, but it could suffer their effects once triggered. Nothing in these wards bothered to discriminate between the mortal and supernatural worlds.

“May it lead us to the answer.” Samuel put his hand to his chest, trying to speed his healing along.

There were more of these signs drawn into Awas around them. As Nathan’s blood sought them, they lit in dimmer glows. Wicked traps, ranging from deadly to crippling. All of them with such open triggers. They were rigged against anything spiritual. Anything at all. Unholy horrors could be set off by an enthusiastic prayer.

“There is no clear trail,” Samuel frowned. Another massive understatement. The wards were more like a barrier than a path, stretching out into the Needles. Samuel stood at the edge of a massive spiritual minefield.

The last gasps of power faded from Nathan’s discarded blood. Dull droplets came to rest. There was no pattern to the traps that he could see. He could not form a strategy against them. They were scattered so crazily that it seemed any step might trigger them.

“This is new,” Nathan murmured. “No more than two years old.”

Samuel jerked his head up. Nathan followed the look. One of the old fire escapes still clung to this building. Most of these had been removed from the city. What few of them remained were so poorly constructed that they were deadly, even without interference from angels. This one seemed like an obvious trap. It wasn’t a coincidence, that this hazard’s edge reached right to that ladder. Its spring–loaded lure dangled just out of reach. Samuel fell into a crouch.

“Don’t,” Nathan snapped. He squared his shoulders. “Stay behind me.” His wings flared out, and curled around him. “Guide me to the weakest hazards.”

Samuel straightened. He looked up to the ladder, then back to Nathan. “I can’t see them. If you keep bleeding at them, they’ll just go off in clumps.”

“Guide me by instinct,” Nathan braced himself. “Use me to strike this hazard at its critical points.”

Samuel’s eyebrows lifted, and then he nodded. Those bright eyes closed, and Nathan put his back to them. Unsettling echoes rose behind him. They became an urge, an itch beneath his wings. Captive pieces of Nathan’s spirit whispered, calling back to him. His skin crawled, but he made himself accept that unnerving feeling. They were out of time.

“Go!” Samuel’s command stirred Nathan into motion. He flung himself forward, guided to the right by the itch behind him. His wings closed around him, briefly shutting out the world as he ran. They shuddered, and a few small rips let that world back in.

Bright blood flowed down his feathers, and Nathan gasped. He shook his wings off just in time to feel the next trap coming. Nathan pulled them back in, his only hope of accepting the force leveled against him. Awful shivers threatened to snap their more delicate bones, but for now they held.

“It’s working!” Samuel urged. “Faster! They’re weakening!”

Easy for him to say. Nathan was the one accepting all the damage. He slowed to take a breath, and shake out his wings again. The success of his plan bore their feathers up, and bolstered their strength. Nathan still felt deeply drained.

The itch behind him drove him forward, and down a narrow alley. The next ward chilled him, and stripped frozen feathers from the upper knuckles of his wings. Dying rats tumbled out of the garbage, freezing before they could fully emerge. Absurdly dangerous, Nathan thought. There was no real strategy to their placement, only proliferation. Flashy, intense assaults battering against the integrity of the living world. Each of these going off was like a beacon to any spirit nearby, announcing the ward–maker’s presence. This was not the work of a functioning mind.

“We’re nearly through!” Samuel’s excitement drove Nathan harder. A manic surge of pressure behind Nathan followed him through the alley, and over the small gate at its end. “They barely hold! Just one more!”

Nathan’s wings folded around him. He barreled through another ward. He crossed it, and the air around Nathan fouled. He held his breath. That was a mistake. His lungs ballooned into puffs of pure agony, as the pressure around him dropped away. He coughed. A fine mist of blood spoiled his vision, and forced him to drop his damaged wings. He staggered, and collapsed to all fours.

Samuel’s feet landed on Nathan’s back. The black–winged angel used him like a springboard. Samuel sailed over Nathan’s head. Nathan caught glints off bright kitchen knives, swiftly fetched from Samuel’s jacket. Dizzily he tried to focus his swollen eyes.

An entire band of Marat. They were clustered up here, eagerly waiting. Nathan gulped air dizzily, urging his abused lungs to accept it. His body was still stunned into helpless shudders. Why? He finally mustered the strength to lift his head.

Samuel whirled. His gray hair whipped in a wide arc around him. He shoved himself away from one attacker, and planted his feet in the chest of another. He vaulted away. His kick shoved the attacker into shadow.

Hostile energies erupted beneath the Marat’s boots. Vicious spikes of glass leapt up. They threaded from fragments embedded in the garbage atop the ward. They skewered the trapped Marat in waves, shredding it over and over before the ward’s energy finally released it. The Marat’s spirit escaped its broken vessel before the body hit the ground.

A kick landed in Nathan’s side. Nathan caught the sneaker on its next approach, stopping it inches from his face. He yanked and turned the leg viciously, until the knee above it popped free. The fight rising in him pushed his confusion away. He rolled to his feet, and let all of his weight collapse into his gagging attacker before crumpling back to the pavement.

His attacker never hit the ground. The sickened Marat tumbled backwards and kindled. Supernaturally driven flame consumed the body faster and more completely than purely physical fire ever could. The ward even injured the Marat’s spirit, leaving it struggling to escape the earth.

Triggered against anything spiritual, Nathan thought dimly. He rolled away from another attack. And they’re everywhere. A terrible feeling ran through him. He froze midway, and lay shaking on his back.

The new Marat pursuing him had slower reflexes. This fallen angel overshot, and landed beside Nathan’s chest. A wicked concussion knocked the breath from Nathan’s body, and slid him across the blacktop. Windows popped, row by row, behind and above them. Glass shot into the air overhead. Nathan’s wings curled up to protect him. When he opened them, Samuel stood bloody over a mangled foe.

“There will be more,” Samuel hissed. “We’ve carved them a path out.” He shook the gore from his knives, and tucked them back under his jacket. He eased a large piece of glass out of his brittle gray hair.

Of course. Carved them a path, and lit it up like a goddamned beacon. Nathan staggered to his feet. He spat a molar, and grimaced as it hit the ground. “Lead the way.”

Nathan followed as well as he could. Without the wards to worry about, he relied on Samuel for defense until he could trust his grip. They cut down another alley. Nathan seized a rusted drainpipe, and ripped it away from the brick. The next Marat they met got a faceful of rusty iron, and Nathan got the satisfaction of seeing someone else’s teeth fly past.

If he hadn’t got so comfortable, he’d have noticed the drop in movement around him. If he’d been walking the city from time to time, he’d have noticed this boundary as it formed. Hell, he’d have caught the ward–maker in action. This kind of insanity would have stood out to him plainly if he’d been paying any attention at all. How far around the Needles did it stretch before it closed? How many Marat had found refuge in here before then, while one of the city’s eldest deterrents sat around licking his fucking wounds?

Something hit him from behind. Fuck! He couldn’t afford to look back like that. Not right now. Weight crushed the breath from him, and something sharp dug toward his ribs. Whatever it was, it didn’t get very deep. A flurry of black feathers filled his vision, and the weight came off him. Nathan scrambled to his feet. Samuel turned back to face him. Behind Samuel, a Marat fled— terrified wings tucked low behind him.

“There!” Samuel pointed. Nathan followed the gesture, a quick snap of his head that left him dizzy. A clump of buildings, a few blocks away. “She’s there!”

Another Marat was swiftly approaching them. Nathan growled under his breath. He’d had enough of this bullshit. He stretched out his wounded wings, and pulled them taut against the air. The Marat slowed his run, and peered at those bloody feathers. Nathan’s eyes darkened— cobalt edged his vision, and sucked the warmth out of the world he saw.

A quick snap. A deep, wuthering thump. Air fled in terror, whisking the Makhvet’s presence along with it. Startled angels fled. They scrambled away like cockroaches when the lights flipped on. Actual cockroaches scuttled out of every corner, chasing terrified rats and bristle–tailed cats. The Makhvet’s wings lowered slowly. His icy breath hissed between grinding teeth.

He followed Samuel towards the buildings. His body’s pains quieted, silenced by endless cold within. Vermin escaped him at every turn, on two legs, four, or more. Contempt lifted his feathers until black flecks showed, and turned their edges ragged.

Samuel came to rest in the parking lot of a hotel. Familiar. One of many where the desperate came to shelter when winter turned bitter and cold. A petty box of squalor filled to the brim with weakness. The perfect place for a coward to hide.

A sharp thump fixed his attention on Samuel’s wings. Ire rose in the back of his throat. Samuel’s aggressive posture brought his own wings hunching over his shoulders. Air began to stir between them. He smiled slowly, until his lips drew past the tips of his canines. Dark whispers slid through the ragged feathers behind him.

Samuel glared up at him. Those dark wings hunched to meet his posture. He could see how their upper knuckles shook, straining against the pressure of his presence. Bloodless satisfaction lifted his wings a little higher.

“Brother,” Samuel said slowly, meeting those cobalt–rimmed eyes squarely. Few could do that. Samuel refused to flinch away. “You will not bring this ill wind with me.”

He blinked. A deep breath, and slowly Nathan’s vision cleared. He lowered his wings, and let them lay smooth against the night air. Bit by bit his body’s complaints pressed at his concentration. Nathan brought his hands to his face, and rubbed a cold sweat away.

“Of course not,” Nathan muttered. “Not to Esa.” He took another deep breath. He pulled it into his chest, and let it go. He opened his wings, and let his turmoil sink in. Accepting all. Unresisting. That’s what she needed of him right now. Complaints, and all else, fell through him and faded away. They left him calm and clear.

Samuel watched Nathan until the air settled around them. Samuel’s wings lowered, and his attention turned to the hotel. “I see nothing. There is no peace here. I can hear the broken music,” Samuel lowered his eyes. “I cannot hear my heart.” He lifted his gaze to Nathan uncertainly. “I don’t want to be led astray again.”

“You won’t be,” Nathan said firmly. “I am certain of it, Samuel. She is here.” It was weariness and doubt that clouded Samuel’s faith in their connection. No. More than that. Nathan stepped in closer. He let a hand settle on Samuel’s shoulder. He offered his influence through the contact, determined to ease his little brother’s struggle.

“Whatever happens,” Samuel whispered, “It will have to be enough.” The tension went out of his thin frame. Peace brought clarity back to his pale eyes.

Nathan nodded. He let his hand drop. His wings stretched, and threw ruined feathers into the air. Fresh plumage replaced them, renewed along with Nathan’s focus.

“Let’s go get her,” Nathan lifted his chin, and waited.

Samuel approached the hotel doors, and Nathan fell into step beside him.

Part Eighteen

To call this place seedy would be an act of pure generosity. The motel manager reclined behind his desk, sheltered by a protective pane of bullet–resistant glass. Not bulletproof, not by far. There were already a few holes in it that spoke to the distinction.

The entry doors slid open. There was no one there. The manager checked his monitors. The feeds looked like hijacked porn channels, scrambled beyond deciphering. The manager grumbled under his breath. He hit one of the monitors, as though that might do any good. The picture jumped, and scrambled even more.

A strangely bitter wind swept in from outside, throwing bits of litter onto threadbare carpet in the lobby. Irritated, the manager stood. A boy came through the malfunctioning doors. He took long, steady strides towards the stairwell. His silver hair tossed in the wind, blowing across eyes that looked pure white. He wore an ill–fitting suit, and a dark red shirt. His feet were bound in dirty strips of cloth.

A step after this boy, a tall, thin man followed. His caramel–colored coat swept behind him. His yellow–gold hair was long, only partially tied back by the band at the back of his neck. He had fine, sculpted features and marble–white skin, with almond–shaped eyes that glowed ice–blue. Dark blue cascades hung from his temples. They caught the light, shimmering like glossy feathers.

They swayed across a charcoal T-shirt, stained and torn. Those bright red splashes were blood, but that wasn’t an unfamiliar sight around here. The coat was. His coat had a soft collar, warm and cream–colored— and spattered with gore. Its lining showed through a few rips, swishing past dark denim. Tough jeans flared at the ankle, draped over narrow, well–kept mahogany boots, stiff where grim stains were drying.

Whoever these two were, they looked like trouble. They walked in like they owned the place. They crossed the desk without even looking at the manager.

“Hey,” the manager called out. “Hey!” He waddled out from behind his desk, “You gotta sign in!”

“Eshaast.” The boy waved a dismissive hand at the shouting manager. The manager shut his mouth. Robotically, he returned to his desk and began eating soundlessly. He stared without comprehension at the monitors, as troubled cameras fizzled out. The pair left the lobby. The automatic doors finally slid shut behind them.

They reached the stairwell, and climbed it in silence. The bitter wind followed them, startling someone higher on the stairs. It wound its way upwards, past steps and bolted–in panes. It built as it rose. The third floor fire exit flew open as they reached it. The door bounced hard off its rubber stopper before settling back against it.

Together, the pair walked down the narrow third floor hallway. Peeling wallpaper fluttered as they passed a set of hidden markings. The air moaned across the doors, bitter drafts following them in from the stairs. It carried power with it, rushing past them. It sighed beneath the burden of their living names.

Movement, along the hall. Some of the doors were opened slightly, poor compensation for welded–shut windows and wheezing vents. A few eyes peeked past, looking for something to replace the hotel’s buzzing TVs.

Samuel lifted his right hand, and swept it out in front of him. “Tzotast.”

The doors pulled shut. Locks clicked into place all the way down the hall. Angry steps roused in response, and handles rattled uselessly. Samuel lifted his hand. The stir of Nathan’s spirit stopped him.

Nathan lowered his eyes, and whispered, “Siueo.” The door handles glowed briefly, catching the icy light in Nathan’s eyes. One by one, soft thumps behind the doors. One by one, those who touched the handles crumpled to the floor. Sleep overtook them, and suffused this memory with their dreams. Nathan’s breathing deepened, becoming labored for a moment before he recovered. He fell a step further behind.

As the last sleeper fell, Amib opened his eyes. Once the intruders crossed the hall’s outer ward, he could catch whispers of their living minds directly. The trap strengthened his domain over them, and gave him the first tendrils of influence he needed to overcome this room’s strange silence.

Those whispers chilled him. Nathan. The elder angel’s human name. It brought Amib no answers, for now. Nathan had been pushed to the edges of his own awareness as neatly as Jason Dean had. Samuel. Amib shuddered. There was barely a living mind behind that name at all. Shreds of terror and fragments of madness— little else remained.

Outside, their footsteps stopped. Amib braced himself. Halfway down the hall, another set of traps webbed in around the intruders. This snare caught weaker Marat and bystanders all the time. The trap left them drained to death, collapsed there like any of the building’s junkies. By the time the ward was done, anyone looked gaunt enough to pass for a lifelong addict.

Normally this trap brought Amib a rush of power, drawn from its victims. Now it drained the life from him. He couldn’t manage surprise. These were not the angry prisoners Jason Dean ducked every day, making his way in and out of the Needles. He was supposed to be the only supernatural creature that could cross that boundary. Whoever these two were, they had somehow managed to defy his defenses and survive the angry mob inside.

Amib reached out to his wards. Samuel was the one struggling. His fury was draining away the power in that trap, soaking it straight into the angel’s skin. Absorption, then. A handful of spirits were adept at taking power from others unwillingly. Most were Fallen. One, though, kept tugging at his memory…

Amib’s eyes opened. He’d made a mistake. Samuel wasn’t the child’s living name, just the name it clung to. Samuel. The Whited Sepulchre serving the Gate. That explained the boy’s ruined mind. Puavale’s monster had clawed its way to the surface, and destroyed whatever its vessel might have been.

Amib looked toward the bed. Her Image had finally come for her, then. Relief drained him even more than Samuel had. He wasn’t worried about a rescue attempt. The spirit that enslaved him was stronger than any he’d ever encountered. Samuel wouldn’t get past its strange protection.

The drain on his spirit stopped abruptly. Amib closed his eyes. His thoughts reached back to the wards, worried they had failed. A rush of power met him, and nearly knocked him from his body. He crumpled, clutching at his chest. Too much. Too much! Violets choked him, leaving bitter spices on the back of his tongue.

Not him!

Acceptance itself opened broad brown wings, and their wounded glory passed through the symbols he’d traced across the walls. That glory offered no resistance, giving freely to the traps that snared it. Overwhelming. Amib shuddered, and gasped. Somewhere, far away, he could feel Seleste tugging at his shirt. He couldn’t find his way back to his senses. It was too vast, too old, far too much for him to withstand.


The desperate gasp released him, and released the wards outside. Amib fell forward. Every nerve became electric. The movement of his shirt collar felt so intense, it prompted delirious thoughts of the starched material sawing off his head. Amib tried to beg Seleste to stop, to give him a moment to recover. He couldn’t speak. Too much. Too much!

The door’s wards glowed. The handle fell apart under their heat. Molten metal dripped into the carpet. Smoke rose from the clumps, as cheap berber smouldered away. The acrid smell was something to hang on to, until he could find his way back to control.

Through the hole in his door he glimpsed Nathan’s composed face. Split tones overwhelmed Amib again, scattering his senses. “Goameo.” Nathan’s hand swept gently from left to right. The door peeled off of melting hinges, and toppled away from the frame.

Amib’s disorientation left him relying on his spirit. For a moment he saw himself through Nathan’s living mind. His cheekbones were high, his features soft, his hair cascading in long curls that could well have been spun gold. He wore a starched shirt, its sleeves rolled past his elbows. He was still in suit pants and well–shined shoes. His blazer and tie had been left draped across a chair. His eyes glowed, a robin’s egg blue that matched the pinstripes on his shirt. Behind him, a frail–looking woman, platinum blonde, climbed onto the bed, and threw herself over a mound in the covers. Amib watched Nathan register every detail, and compare them to a photo someone had taken a long time ago.

Tattered wings spread behind Amib, obscuring the woman he protected. Their plumage was in a sorry state, patches of pale gray skin showing as they stretched. They had been brilliant white once. No longer. The feathers that remained were shabby and discolored.

“Amib,” Samuel stepped up to the man, his own black wings shimmering at the edge of perception. The name brought Amib’s thoughts back together, condensing them inside his own skull.

“I’ve done everything you asked!” Amib finally found his voice. He cast his eyes up to the ceiling, to the wards glowing there. “Why?”

Nathan tilted his head curiously. “I have asked noth—”

“WHY?” Amib shrieked. “Why would you forsake me?”

“Heio, Samuel!” Samuel snapped. The greeting demanded a response.

“And I am Amib!” He hadn’t meant to respond, but his disoriented thoughts gave way. So insistent was that demand that Amib’s weary mind abandoned English entirely. “I am betrayed! How else could you have found me!”

“Your withered bride weeps,” Samuel advanced, stepping across the threshold. “She soaks the very earth with her suffering.”

“Liar!” Amib’s wards burned against the walls, intensifying the pressure against Samuel’s entry. “You were led here! I am become another’s pawn!”

“I knew you both from the tokens you left behind.” Samuel’s eyes settled coldly on Amib’s wing, where it hid Seleste’s face from view. “She cut what she discarded from my beloved’s head. Once I could separate her broken cries from the others, they led me to you.”

“Nothing was supposed to escape this room!” Amib quaked with rage. The wards holding Samuel back drained some of Nathan’s excess power from Amib, calming him by degrees. “Nothing reached through it to me! Tell me who led you here!”

“There is no silence that can stand between self and self,” Samuel opened his palm, and there glowed a symbol Amib had all but forgotten. It swirled in a half moon, and curled in to cross itself. It sang of innocent faith. Its disembodied voice pulled unbearably at Amib’s heart. “She barely remembers herself, but I have hunted her before.”

Hungry ghosts and shattered songs. That sparked an idea that ignited Amib’s despair. His eyes swung to fix on the smaller angel. His determination burned there, even as his face settled into a hopeful mask.

“Tell me,” Amib’s voice was vibrant, rich with spirit. His talents infused the sound, trying to find entry as Samuel listened. The boy’s mind had been hollowed out, all but discarded. Even with domain, he couldn’t find what he needed there— but if he had a familiar thread to follow… “This life has barely sobered me!” Amib threw himself to the carpet and begged. “My memories slip from me! Tell me what you know of her, that I might ease my suffering!”

“I know your carnival tricks, Amib.” The symbol in Samuel’s hand brightened. At first it looked as though it were losing its color— then Amib noticed tiny licks of pure white light, tongues of colorless flame, surrounding it. “They do not penetrate the white fire.”

Samuel drew that symbol back into his flesh, and silenced its precious echoes. The white fire remained. Samuel flicked his wrist, and tossed sparks of pure white into the room. Nearby wards ignited, traced in brilliance before they burned away.

Seleste shrieked. Amib’s wings trembled, fighting to keep her concealed. He shuddered. Each broken symbol sent agony ripping through him. He had no choice. He released the ones he could, and let them burn. Searing white light drove him back from the door. Determination kept his wings aloft, but nothing could make his body brave that uncompromising fire.

“I have come to claim what is mine from the walking dead,” Samuel said. His voice was eerily calm.

Calm! Memory gave Amib hope. That was the secret to Puavale’s weapon. The white fire demanded absolute calm. Calm and trust were how they’d escaped it all those years ago. Those all–important threads of influence his wards had won burned away under Samuel’s onslaught. They left him as good as blind. He threw his arm across his eyes, and gritted his teeth.

“Stay your hand!” Amib flung the other hand forward. The white flame leapt higher, and licked at Amib’s outstretched fingers. They caught fire, melting like candle–wax. His fear, he knew, ignited them. That, and the cursed burden he protected. Amib fought for calm. Trust was far beyond him.

It was no use. His will faltered. Amib bit back on the pain, then cried out as it burrowed toward bone. Behind him, his burden screamed, echoing this agony.

“Esa!” Samuel’s eyes widened, and his hands shook. “Here? Why does she still feel distant to me?” The Aspect’s scream destroyed his composure. Samuel’s white fire discolored, and fell from his control.

“It’s the Harvester’s sting!” The pain in Amib’s hand ebbed, and he closed his eyes. Wounds of the spirit, he told himself. Not of the flesh. He opened his eyes, and saw his hand as it was, unmarked. “We’ve been tending to her, protecting her!”

“Keeping her captive!” Samuel tried to push past Amib. His hiked–up wings hunched forward, and Amib’s lowered despite the Marat’s best efforts. Amib fought every instinct, and kept himself in Samuel’s way.

“Keeping her from sinking within!” Amib still ached horribly. His hand was untouched physically, but his spirit still bore the wound. Words were his only weapons, for now. “The Harvesters have driven her distant inside herself! They have driven her mad!”

Samuel’s wings flared. Their feathers spread, a deranged splay that gave his wings a ragged edge. He looked past Amib. Those ragged black wings sank, despair bearing them low.

Amib could see into Samuel’s living thoughts, now. All he saw was Esa. Esa lay there, her eyes wide and sightless. Her scream had finally faded, and now she wept softly.

“My sister wants to be here,” Seleste had retreated to the other side of the bed, and brought Esa’s uninjured hand up. Seleste pressed that unresisting hand against her own pale cheek, and cooed softly. Her other hand threaded through Esa’s charcoal–tinted hair.

Amib found himself transfixed. The way Samuel saw her was colored by what the Sepulchre had taken. From somewhere deep within this terrible spirit, her echoes infused and transformed the sight of her. In Samuel’s eyes, Seleste was as she had been the first time the Gate tried to stop her. Innocent, tragically beautiful, and whole— as though the war had only just happened.

“She’s going all quiet.” Seleste’s fingers dropped, and teased at the fresh bandage on Esa’s other arm. Tiny black splotches were already soaking through otherwise pristine gauze. Seleste fondled the bandage. She cooed again, stroking the gauze with tender affection. “She needs me.”

“Abbadolam wush!” Samuel flushed, and spat the insult at Seleste. He curled his fingers in tight against his palms. His knuckles stood out white against reddening skin.

Amib couldn’t understand Samuel, perceiving the words through that shredded living mind. He retreated to his own perspective. “Ruinous tongue!” The meaning filtered through. Samuel’s voice dropped to a sizzling hiss, “You lie!” Samuel shoved Amib aside.

Discolored licks of pale fire still clung to the boy. Samuel’s touch ignited Amib from shoulder to elbow, embers jumping dangerously close to Amib’s ragged wings.

Amib curled in on himself. The pain was far too great for him to fight. He let his wings collapse from the world, hiding them from Samuel’s reach. He sagged back against the chair, and fought for consciousness. Samuel closed on the bed, reaching out for Esa.

Let him have her! Amib’s heart screamed. Let him take her, and release us from this curse!

A flash of silvery threads, and a dissonant screech. Amib’s eyes flew wide. He yelped, “No!” No one heard him. Seleste had thrown herself between Samuel and Esa. Her silvered eyes were shining. The last of her fading spirit blazed defiantly at the Sepulchre. Her wings were barely more than bone, shreds of dried flesh hanging from brittle spines.

“Alqi doa ita’keh!” She’d never been so coherent before. She would not yield her sister to anyone. Her brittle bones hunched possessively, their thinnest ribs spreading back over Esa’s bed. Her voice separated into harsh and clashing tones, but they were music to Amib’s lonely ears.

It was sweet agony to hear her spirit speak. Now his mind could finally complete the picture. In those flashing silver eyes, he saw her as she had been, impossibly and heartbreakingly beautiful. The queen of his heart, then and ever more.

What a poor subject was he, how faithless! He had thought her too far gone to say anything in her true voice, much less in the tongue he first heard it speak. Amib struggled to stand, driven to defend her. She’d proclaimed that Samuel could not take Esa from her. So be it. If this was her stand, he would die defending it— and gladly so.

Samuel’s hands were upon Seleste before Amib could claim his feet. Discolored flames covered her instantly. Her incessant guilt ignited brilliantly. She twisted and screamed. Amib caught her as she fell, and gathered her to his chest. Her fire spread to him, searing through his spirit. His pain burned. Suffering ate away at what remained of his wings. He pulled her closer, and consigned himself to share her despair.

Pure devotion quelled the flames. They swept from existence, and the pain ebbed. Amib stroked Seleste’s hair, calming her as she cried. He pulled his ruined wings down around her, sheltering her from her attackers.

“My sister,” Seleste clawed at Amib’s shirt. Her thin fingers curled tight against his chest. “He can’t take my sister from me.” She drew her knees up. They peeked out of her nightgown so delicately. He could see the joints standing out against her skin. How he wished he could wither along with her.

Samuel dropped to his knees, his wings knocked low and back. Their feathers splayed as wingtips crossed one another. Their stricken posture reflected in his voice. “Esabaue,” he whispered, the endearment spoken reverently. “The light of my heart…” His small hand took Esa’s chin, and tilted her sightless eyes to his. They stared past him. “She flickers in embers.”

That cold, unnerving presence swept past Amib, and stood behind the kneeling angel. Nathan. Rich brown wings curled out, and gathered around Samuel. Violets, and lurking beneath that— coriander, cinnamon, just a hint of clove. The scent brought back memories from a long–buried necropolis. It summoned up hatred Amib had left baking beneath punishing sun and pitiless sand. Amib pried Seleste’s fingers gently from him, and set her against the chair nearby.

Nathan’s hand descended to Samuel’s shoulder. The last traces of discolored fire swept from Samuel to Nathan. They dwindled to nothing as they sought Nathan’s icy skin. Nathan murmured something to Samuel, words Amib couldn’t hear. Amib was too focused on his target. The back of Nathan’s head was still visible between the arched contours of his wings.

Amib’s fingers snared a cheap lamp off the bedside table. He swung it in the same motion, its heavy stone base aimed at the Nathan’s head. With inhuman strength, Amib hurled it at the brain channeling the Death into this earthly form.

“Toalast!” Nathan’s command rang sharp and clear. The stone obeyed. It shattered into pieces a moment before it struck. Flimsy metal struck the Makhvet’s head, and pulled blood into his bright golden hair. Bits of shattered stone and fine dust rained down on the worn carpet.

Nathan was already turning to face him. Ice blue eyes fixed on Amib. He did not posture. He did not defend himself. He struck in the motion of his turn. His fingers shoved between Amib’s ribs.

Amib felt his bones bend before he could react. One of them cracked, sending cold shivers through Amib’s chest. Blood seeped around Amib’s lungs, burdening his breath. Amib caught the hand that struck him. He spun. His foot swept back to catch Nathan’s ankle. Supernatural strength rose to meet the gesture. He used Nathan’s momentum, leveraging it over his own body. He flung the elder angel into the hallway.

Nathan twisted in the air, his coat flaring out in the motion. He landed with his feet under him. His right hand grabbed at the carpet to stop his backward slide. His left was behind him, gathering his spirit’s power for an attack.

Amib’s strength was already gathered. Streaks of vibrant blue light crossed the distance, and struck Nathan, driving him further back. They burrowed into skin, seeking the spirit beneath. Nathan’s pain was only a means to an end. As the angel suffered, Amib’s influence sang in Nathan’s blood. That song wrenched the angel’s living mind open to him.

Nathan accepted the attack. The Makhvet’s head bowed. His breathing quickened. Amib knew he had moments before the angel crushed his influence with that acceptance. He made them count.

Cold. Such endless cold. Cold that burned, cold that turned everything it touched to frost and splinters. Calm, that accepted everything it encountered, releasing it or not as the angel chose. No plan, no actions waiting to be executed. Nothing Amib could exploit.

Desperately, Amib attacked again, pushing his influence deeper. Locked together this way, the pain he inflicted was punishing to both of them. Still he found nothing but that endless, empty cold. That cold ran so deeply, Amib began to despair of finding anything beneath it. Finally it released him— into an abyss of unbearable loneliness. There boiled rage, threatening the angel’s impenetrable calm. Deep beneath the angel’s reach, this living mind clung to its losses. It seethed against them.

Amib’s breath went out of him. A weakness!

Then the Makhvet’s calm closed over them, and crushed the last of Amib’s invading influence out of his vessel. Amib reeled, blinded for a moment by this defeat. Once his senses recovered, Nathan had him by the throat. He was pinned to another door along the hallway.

“I will warn you once, because I am sworn to,” Nathan said flatly, “Submit. If you insist on a fight tonight, I will spare you nothing.” Nathan’s eyes emptied. His symbol blazed clearly between his eyes. The sigil brought with it the memory of his terrible history, his unstoppable resolve. “Know me, brother Amib. Turn from this path.”

Amib relaxed, lowering his wings as much as he could in this position. His rib itched. He felt the bone knitting together as the blood around it succumbed. He hung his head, and waited for Nathan’s grip to ease.

While he waited, Amib sank into his bitterness. Thousands of years, following in her shadow. He hoarded jealously all the pain he’d felt, watching her guilt eat away all that made her beautiful. Innocent faith withered away into a screeching echo. How helpless he felt, unable to stop it! He poured all the loneliness of that vigil through his spirit. Submission to its weight bore his wings low.

Nathan dropped him. Amib continued down, sinking to a crouch. His wings hunched forward as he landed. They flared, up and out. He pushed forward and up, using the wall for leverage.

Amib knocked Nathan’s arm out of the way before the elder angel could react. He gathered everything in him for a desperate strike. His fist connected, and sunk into a taut abdomen. A ragged exhalation rewarded him, sending the Makhvet’s breath rushing out. Amib’s influence flooded after it, carrying with it every drop of agony he could summon.

Nathan hurtled into the opposite wall. His head whipped back. His skull slammed into plaster. Impact drove the sense out of Nathan’s eyes. Six foot three of flesh and bone folded in on itself, fighting for breath. Amib’s foot followed, a kick meant to drive Nathan’s bruised skull through drywall.

Fingers closed on his ankle before he could connect. They captured his momentum with a viselike grip that accepted and redirected his force. Amib’s kick struck a stud in the wall, and sent pain streaking all the way up his spine.

Still coughing, Nathan wrenched Amib’s leg. Captured force channeled between two hands, and twisted the bones in Amib’s leg against each other. A sharp snap. Tingling shivers heralded the rush of heat that followed, as nerves turned to channels of molten agony.

Endorphins made Amib giddy, trying and failing to numb him. Amib’s damaged wings thumped the air. His hands whipped forward. Streaks of bright blue struck Nathan, driving more of Amib’s desolation into the struggling angel. Nathan released him, and drew a shuddering breath.

Spiral fractures were the most difficult to knit. Sheared at a steep angle and splintered, the ragged pieces of his shin had been pulled from each other. He hopped back, watching Nathan carefully. Amib spared a moment to see if he could afford the time he would take realigning the bone.

Shimmering folds of cobalt made it hard to see Nathan’s face. Long blond hair fell across what view was left of Nathan’s expression. A subtle movement, a spasm running through that tall, thin frame. Nathan’s chin tilted up slightly, and Amib caught sight of something unexpected. Black pupils opened wide in Nathan’s eyes.

Amib’s wings flared out. Tattered skin flapped, tugged by the bitter wind still trapped in this corridor. His fingers laced together, then whipped apart. He sent the brightest light he could muster racing away from his hands.

He hurled it right at those defenseless eyes.

Part Nineteen

p. In the middle of a distant night, a storm raged. Lightning cracked overhead. It struck the utility pole outside his window. The transformer exploded, showering the sidewalk with sparks.

Brown eyes opened. Their color drained away, replaced by a near–white glow. Little sparks of powder blue receded to their outline, leaving them blazing. Fever brought beads of sweat to flushed cheeks. Lips peeled back from teeth and tongue.

Samuel screamed.

He screamed until he ran out of breath. He twisted and convulsed as his parents finally reached him. They tried to hold him down. Nothing could hold him down. He arched beneath them, and kicked at their intervening hands. He shrieked in every language he’d ever known.

He had to reach her!

He had to find her!


The boy’s fever swiftly overcame him. For two weeks he slipped from delirium to unconsciousness and back again. His fingernails blackened. His skin burned. Desperation in the household turned to panic. His parents argued over a hospital bed, while their son lapsed into a coma.

Samuel awoke under cold cloth weights. He did not know how long he had been there. He did not care. He ripped tubes from his arms, and put both hands around the ones obstructing his voice. He wrenched them cruelly, until they gave way. The bigger one scraped his throat hollow, flopping wet on his chest. The smaller made his nose burn.

Something squeezed his legs. Samuel growled, the sound low and raw. He wrenched his legs hard. Bindings around his legs popped free of their tubes. An alarm sounded. Samuel whispered to it, in a language older than sound. The alarm’s circuitry popped and hissed. The room went dark. Low, sullen lights gradually managed a glow near the door.

Samuel rolled off the bed. He hit the floor on all fours, and tried to stand. His body shook from the effort. Impatiently, Samuel drove his spirit through unresponsive limbs. His nerves sizzled, overwhelmed by this presence. His limbs twitched and writhed beneath his tender skin.


Urgency thrilled through him, driving him though he could barely move. It was a constant pull in the middle of his chest, yanking him into motion every time he rested. It was nothing so coherent as a cry for help. It was a raw, unrelenting need. He had to find her. He had to find her. She was hurting, and she was terrified.

Moonlight called to him. Glass stood between he and the night sky. Samuel snapped a command at it. It fled his voice. Panes exploded outward into the night. This strange, pressurized glass crumbled into pieces as it fell. Samuel pulled himself towards the window.

Burly arms wrapped around him. They lifted him off the ground. They called him by another name, and ordered him to be calm. Other names had no power over him. The only name Samuel obeyed was hers.

Samuel kicked and screamed. He tried to speak, but his exhausted voice failed him. Something slipped between his gnashing teeth. Some kind of soft resin wrapped around them. His scream became a squeal.

NO! Let me go!

That became the rhythm of Samuel’s life. Gradually he got stronger, and his escapes got him further. The destruction that followed him ended in anger, lectures, and eventually charges. Samuel used his first hearing as an opportunity to reach the street. After that failure, he ignored them. He stretched his consciousness as far past his mind as he could reach, heedless of how completely that destroyed it.

Whatever it took. He had to find her.

He had to find her now.

All throughout his troubled life, that pull was the only thing that mattered. That demand was all he cared about. He was vaguely aware of being traded from home to home. This was only frustration for him. None of these homes brought him any closer to her side.

Eventually homes were no longer an option. He fought to survive in tougher and tougher facilities. The most violent juvenile populations were nothing compared to the battles seething in Samuel’s head. Other people weren’t the enemy. Samuel fought with them to release the tension that wouldn’t ease any other way. He fought them because otherwise that tension would rip him apart. He fought the biggest kids with the biggest advantage, because a thorough beating brought him closer to rest than anything else could. Inaction was the one thing he couldn’t survive. When he nearly killed one of these bullies, Samuel switched to fighting with the guards.

The facilities were troublesome. They were increasingly restrictive. As the confused child’s mind eroded, more of Samuel’s mind clawed its way to the fore. As he remembered himself, he remembered the need for peace. There was no peace in the facilities. Not for him. He was a threat to everyone, so everyone was a potential threat.

He aged out of one of these facilities, and was promptly tossed into a tougher institution. This one meted out punishment with its ‘quiet room.’ The room was anything but quiet. A long, narrow room with flat walls, it magnified the slightest sound into cacophony.

For the first few nights, Samuel sat at the end of the hall, balefully staring at the door. Someone read a newspaper outside. Each swish became piercing by the time it reached him. Covering his ears did nothing. The angel’s sensitive ears picked up every movement. He could hear which page had turned. He could hear the damned thing fold. That newspaper blended with Esa’s screams, an eternal torment he couldn’t even die to escape.

Finally, one night, the ‘attendant’ fell asleep. The swishing stopped. Peace settled suddenly over Samuel, and his eyes lit.

The long, narrow hallway split into two, then three, then four. It split away from him in all directions. They met at his feet. Samuel stared ahead, feeling stronger with every heartbeat. The beats slowed. His focus deepened. He could see himself traveling down that hallway. The light was a little different in each hallway, a little closer to morning. The meager window threw its shadows just a little further in every version of the night ahead. Every intervening factor, seen or unseen, split the vision again. He stood at a nexus of slightly different halls, watching each one experience the night ahead.

He knew there was a camera above the door. One by one, reverberating pops heralded the camera’s sudden death. Samuel saw his little hand reach out to knock on the doorway. He held his breath, and let the visions unfold. Faster and faster, the possibilities multiplied, then began to fade. Inevitability condensed some of these splintered hallways. Others faded to mist and confusion. Instinct told him they lacked a critical turning point, a pivot from which he could see them.

At last he watched himself escaping the room. Under different shadows, in different postures, ghostly visions of Samuel launched at the guard. One after the other, all these versions of himself were thrown back into that narrow room.

Then one wasn’t. Samuel’s vision stretched well into the daylight, and back into the next night. That one room remained empty.

Samuel sank down to the bed and waited. He waited for the tiny window to stretch its feeble shadows to just the right point on his wall. He glanced up at the camera, and hissed a command. The camera’s pop reverberated at just the right moment. Samuel approached the door. He counted, then knocked.

The rest was a surprise to everyone but Samuel. He’d seen every version of how the guard would react when knocked to the floor. He stepped between the blows that would have caught him, and stepped into the one that gave him his chance. It all happened in moments, and then Samuel was gone. Samuel left the stunned guard to wake an hour later, and pull a rolled–up newspaper out of his mouth.


That constant pull. It had drawn him through arrest after arrest, escape after escape. Two states later, that voice drove him to play at reformation, enough to get placed in a ‘problem child’ home. He followed that call until he found one that didn’t care if he left. One that wouldn’t report him, and kept collecting the checks that covered his escape. By then the angel Samuel was fully awake, and screaming back to her across their bond.

I’ll find you! You must endure!

She never replied. She screamed, and she suffered. Her suffering drove him across the country. It could just as easily have driven him across the stars.

That drive defined his life, and now it was gone.

Kneeling beside her bed, with his hands against her skin, he felt nothing from her. This strange silence clawed at him more deeply than her wailing ever had. Her cries had been the biggest challenge he faced, trying to fend for himself. How he’d begged for a moment’s relief! How he’d twisted and screamed in his nightmares, night after night, searching for the peace she drove from him! Now he would give anything to snatch that torment back.

He was finally here! How could she be quiet now?

Samuel cradled Esa’s face in his hands. The gesture only made him painfully aware of how small those hands were. He’d never truly felt helpless, despite the tender age of this vessel. He’d weathered the storms of its inexplicable emotion, cried its petty tears. He’d endured its fear, and fed its needs as he would a troublesome pet. Through all his captivity, through all of his failures, he’d never felt helpless.

He was completely helpless now.

“Shatter!” Nathan’s command rang out behind him. A shower of stone and dust exploded behind him. Samuel barely acknowledged it. The Death’s shadow left him. It didn’t matter. Nothing that happened here could possibly matter. Not until Esa opened her eyes.

He didn’t know how to exist without her. Her past was so tightly wound together with his. He grasped in vain for her virtue’s influence. Abidance. Abidance was such an integral part of his eternity. Serving her. Rescuing her from situations she put up with for too long. Meeting the world alongside her. Being patiently civilized by the one creature who knew from the beginning just how impatient he could truly be.

No memory would ever be complete without her. His eternal life was being ripped from him, piece by agonizing piece. He clutched at her cheeks with trembling fingers. Dark nails dug into her skin.

He begged her, in the language that first bore his love to her. “Without you, I am lost!” He seized her hand in both of his, a crushing grip that threatened frail bones. “Give me a sign, any sign! Stir to my presence, precious Esa!” Desperately, he searched for her spirit.

Then her lips parted, just slightly, and a little of her light escaped her. So pale it was nearly colorless, her presence began bleeding out into the world around her. Threads of her spirit soaked into his skin, carried by ragged breaths. He tried to pull her scent into his lungs. All that reached him was fetid rot, seeping slowly through her bandage.

Whispers of her memories brought with them mounting panic. A spasm coiled Samuel’s body. He crushed her hand to his chest. “Eisadei’qi!” Her full name rarely crossed his lips. Desperation wrung it from him. With all his being, he bid her take its shape. “I invoke thee!” A word in the oldest form of Malakhrit, delivered with all the faith remaining to him.

It should have invoked her. It should have called her back to her truest self. It brought no answer. Samuel squeezed his eyes shut, and cried out, commanding her as he never had before. “You will heed!”

A shriek cut through his command. “Get away from what’s mine!” The crude, modernized Malakhrit couldn’t have been a greater contrast to Samuel’s words. Amib’s withered wife clawed at him, her bony fingers struggling to reach his eyes. Her crazed mutterings slipped in and out of sense, falling to random syllables between finding true words. She attacked him from her hands and knees, collapsing when both hands left the carpet. Her weakness turned Samuel’s stomach.

Samuel’s wings hiked up over his shoulders. Emotion drew them close to the living world. The left upper strut dipped between them. His wing flexed, and shoved Seleste aside. She hit the bedside table, and fell to whimpering.

Samuel ignored her tears. He had nothing left in him for her ramblings. He clasped Esa’s hand in both of his, and hung on with all his might. His chin fell, until his forehead came to rest against her icy fingers. Silently he begged her, hoping his pain could reach her when no words could.

“You won’t take her! No one will take my sister from me!” Seleste finally got to her knees. With strength born of pure madness, she threw herself at Samuel. Her lunge knocked him aside. It tore his hand from Esa’s.

Samuel let out a crazed howl. His eyes emptied completely. Bright white light filled them from lid to lid. His fractured mind caved beneath this pressure, leaving him in chaos. His black wings shivered, and hunched forward as he fell. They strained toward Esa as his fall pulled him away.

Seleste pinned him down. Her spindly limbs quivered, driven by pure spirit. Her muscles writhed like tormented prisoners, trapped beneath her papery skin. Her frail bones trembled so hard she couldn’t keep a grip on Samuel. Her determination crushed him against the floor with overwhelming force.

Samuel’s cheek hit stone. A fragment’s sharp edge ripped his cheek open. The smell of blood spurred him. It mixed with the corruption seeping from Esa’s wounds. Panic dragged Samuel further from thought. Sense fled him. From deep in his memory, the drive bubbled up in him afresh. Esa!

Blinded by Esa’s torment, Samuel struck at the shrieking creature that attacked him. In that moment she was not an alqa, not a sister of Heaven. She was a threat. She tore him from his dying heart.

Samuel’s forehead connected squarely with Seleste’s cheekbone. Dull pain rang in his ears as he fought to catch her quaking arms. He yanked and twisted, trying to snap her bones. She kept slipping from his frantic grip. She was too fast. She was as driven as he, spurred on by her own desperation.

Bared wing bones pulled themselves vividly into the air around Seleste. They drew from her weakened spirit, draining her to claim a place in the world. Their needle–sharp tips clawed at him. They gouged his skin. Her fingernails dug at his eyes. She only managed shallow wounds, but he could barely fend these off.

Samuel’s scream rose. Something rattled above the headboard. A dirty mirror vibrated in its cheap frame. Its surface rippled like water. Cloudy, silver–painted glass shattered, and rained down on the bed below.

Shards pelted down around Esa. A few stuck into the mattress, and one grazed the bandaged arm still hanging over the bed’s edge. A slash opened on the back of Esa’s hand. Murky, corrupted blood wept from it. Oily black fluid spilled out onto her bed.

The stench choked Samuel. It halted his scream in his throat. In this breathless moment, everything around Samuel stopped. Tiny bits of shattered glass hung sparkling in the broken light. Seleste towered above him, her platinum hair drifting slowly in mid–flight. Her bony wings arched above her. He watched the longest of their needle–tips aim straight at his eyes. Her mouth slowly drifted open. Her thin lips peeled back from her teeth.

“She’s mine!”

Seleste’s words wrenched Samuel back into motion. Crazed fury took him over completely. Samuel’s fingers closed around the nearest bit of broken mirror. The shard bit into him even as he grasped it. He whipped it forward, slicing over and over at the withered creature atop him.

Blood and spirit flowed down the glass together. Seleste’s silver–laced blood mixed with Samuel’s own. Its desperate suffering only added to his. Her hatred drove his blows harder against her sunken chest. Cruel edges bit deep into his fingers, but Samuel couldn’t stop. Not so long as she cried.

Seleste collapsed on top of him. Her bony wings disappeared. Her screams ceased abruptly. Samuel’s arms finally dropped. The mirror shard fell from his aching hand.

Her eyes were emptied of their silver light. Dull blue and green tints showed through, unfocused and expressionless. Her mouth hung open. Blood seeped down from more than a dozen wounds on her arms and chest, all of them shallow. Samuel shuddered. The depth he cut didn’t matter. Wounds he dealt drew through a vessel, claiming the spirit within. There had been so little of her to claim.

There was nothing he could do to stop it. Her tattered echoes gave themselves up to him. Her final whispers sank into Samuel’s lacerated fingers. The last gray murmurs of her lament, the last accusations of her failure, all became a part of him. Seleste’s bitterness coiled within the Sepulchre as her eternal life succumbed. She made of him a living tomb.

Samuel shook violently. Bitter tears mixed with the blood on his cheeks. He couldn’t see Esa. He couldn’t lift his head. He couldn’t move. The fighting outside halted. Silence fell. Now there was only the sound of Nicole Dean, her breathing soft and even beside him.

Part Twenty

Nathan’s body moved on its own. His reflexes took over. A kick flying at his face brought his response— a quick redirection, and a vicious twist. Bones split apart beneath his touch. The contact dropped away.

Nathan was a million miles away. He was a million years away, and then he was right here. He was drowning in a dark ocean, and it closed over his head. He was aching in a place so deep he couldn’t reach it.

His chin tilted up. The strange, unearthly light that formed his vision receded. The hall lights stung him. They brought drips to the corners of his eyes. Human eyes. They saw so much less, this way. They fixed on details, able to take in only a few things at a time. They showed him the peeling wallpaper, the stains in the carpet. They showed him the scuffed toe of his right boot.

A blinding flash drove all of that away. Nathan recoiled. Pain paralyzed him, and froze his thoughts. Blow after blow to his face bounced his head against the floor. Gradually Nathan understood that there was someone on top of him. His reflexes took over again. Not the timeless efficiency of an eternal killer, this time. This reaction shot through numb reflection, and seized his attacker by both wrists.

He yanked someone down, hard. His shoved his head forward. His forehead connected. His neck was already braced. It soaked the impact. Blood sprayed him, stinging his useless eyes. Muffled breathing, a yelp distorted by a broken nose. Nathan was already following up with an elbow. Shudders of panic and pain screamed at him that he couldn’t let up, not for an instant. His right hand seized a thin throat. His left patted the floor, searching for something that wasn’t there. Then it crossed beneath his right, landing a solid blow somewhere in the middle of his attacker’s torso.

Nathan’s legs kicked wildly as he threw these blows. He managed to wedge a knee under the body above. Legs and arms worked together to beat that body into a wall pressing in beside him. His attacker bounced off. Nathan rolled along with the rebound without letting go. He followed the motion until he’d reversed their positions, and pinned the struggling body beneath him. He was shaking and panting, now. Adrenaline burned bitter in the back of his throat.

He was back here again. A small, terrified corner of his mind told him that he would always end up right back here. He recoiled from that, and scrambled away from the body on the floor. He retreated blindly until his back hit a door. He pulled his knees up toward his chest. Instinct screamed at him. He couldn’t rest. He couldn’t ever rest. There would always be footfalls behind him. A shadow at the door.

Pain hit him, streaking through every nerve. It shoved Nathan deeper into that shadow. Disoriented, he lashed out. His hands grabbed clumps of fabric, and dug in tight. Disconnected flashes bled into one another. He could hear crackling and snapping, like gravel being crushed and ground. His teeth. His teeth were grinding so hard it sounded like he was chewing on rocks.

His neck squeezed. He let go of the fabric, and clutched at his throat. He couldn’t get a grip. His fingers slid over something that felt like leather. He dug frantic scratches into his own skin. Breath became a struggle, and then it stopped completely. He convulsed. A fresh wave of pain shot through him, striking somewhere deeper than he could express. It plunged him further from the world he couldn’t see.

Why couldn’t he see?

The question melted away even as it formed. He blinked, hard. He lashed out, but his hands were clumsy to the point of uselessness. His body was giving up. He was still fighting, but his body was letting go.

… let go…

Nathan couldn’t let go. He couldn’t let up. Not for a second. There was always someone looking for somebody with their guard down. Only assholes let their guard down. Even if he wasn’t ready for something, he had to look like he was. Surrender was weak. It wasn’t fair that he had to look weak. It wasn’t fair that he had to surrender. It wasn’t his fault. Letting go wasn’t something he wanted to do. It came from that ice inside. It came from that soulless calm that took over when he couldn’t fight it anymore.

He couldn’t fight it, back then. He could fight it, right now. He could finally defeat it, if he could just keep himself from letting go. That certainty came from somewhere in the back of his mind. It egged him on, and urged him to drive that calm away. Wave after wave of wrenching pain forced that awful inner presence down, and rekindled his determination. He’d never held it off for this long before.

His fingers found something warm and wet. They slid, catching a half–dried slick of blood. That feeling, he knew. He’d found his attacker’s face. He clung, digging his fingers into uneven textures. Frantically he tried to understand the contours in his grasp. Slender fingers poked and grabbed, searching for eyes. He grazed one, and his attacker jerked back. The pressure on his throat eased.

It should have been a victory. It should have made him stronger. Instead, it sapped his will to fight. Ice flooded up through his chest, and stilled the panic against his will. Calm submerged him, and plunged him down through endless darkness. He forced a little bit of air past his constricted throat.

It’s not me.

All the resistance went out of Nathan’s body at once. His thoughts screamed helplessly at him as his body relaxed. Gradually even that inner fight slipped away.

Nice try.

As Nathan’s living mind finally quieted, tendrils of influence stood out plainly. They searched for his panic. They urged him to protect his pain. Amib redoubled their pressure, but the moment’s recoil had cost him. Nathan’s calm closed over that invading influence, and crushed it out of his mind. It left him in silence, and darkness, until his eyes began to clear.

Nathan’s vision was dim, but it was his. His eyes were dry, and he could feel thin vessels in them breaking. Blood smoked away from blotches in their whites as they healed, escaping through delicate membranes. Nathan focused on Amib’s face at last.

Amib’s broken nose was mending by degrees. Fine red mist rose from stained skin. He redoubled his efforts every time Nathan got a gasp past bloodless lips. Nathan lived on these bits of stale air, laden thickly with Amib’s presence. Nathan could taste it on the back of his swollen tongue. Dried figs and bitter hops. The sweet bite of acidity in desert honey.

Nathan’s dry throat convulsed, and his lungs burned. He concentrated on the belt wrapped around his throat. Its buckle dug into his trachea, threatening to crush it. He couldn’t give a command to release it. He could barely win those precious sips of air at all.

Nathan put the last of his concentration on the join between stitching and skin. Thread pulled valiantly against tanned hide, rejecting the forces that pulled layers apart. Silently he claimed that rejection. He turned it back against itself. With all his faith, he bid the stitching accept its end.

Thread slipped through leather, each side of that battle surrendering its fight. The belt’s buckle popped off. The belt whipped up, and slapped toward Amib’s grimace. Amib ducked the recoil, and replaced the belt’s pressure with both of his hands. Nathan managed a gasping breath, but his swollen throat remained silenced. He quieted his mind, and waited for Amib to try again.


Amib’s next attempt to intrude found him welcoming. Nathan drew that influence in greedily, and accepted it with all his living thought. He relaxed beneath the pressure on his throat. He gave up on breath. All his focus flooded across their contact.

So much pain. How deep, the loneliness with which his little brother tried to drown him. All that grief. It cried out to the angel beneath Nathan’s troubled mind. Acceptance answered. It welled up, bringing with it the power to let go. It threaded into every defiant impulse to deny an unacceptable fate. It sought to uncoil the tensions with which Amib steeled himself against loss. It sought to ease his troubled heart.

Amib howled. The Marat’s invasive influence retreated. Amib held his face in his hands, horrified eyes staring past his fingers. His mouth hung open, though his cry had run its course. He staggered, and fell to his knees.

Nathan lay on his back. He drew what breath he could through a throat swollen nearly shut. His tissues were starved, and his injured brain struggled. It was in poor shape to be denied oxygen for any length of time. Sleep tugged at heavy eyelids, and begged him for a moment’s reprieve.

“You…” Amib managed at last.

Nathan’s throat slowly eased. Healing will swept through him. His vessel was too broken, too withdrawn, too tired to resist him. He didn’t have to drive it so hard. Why did he always drive it so hard? In this relaxed moment, none of this life made sense to him.

“You monster!” Amib gasped.

Some pang of sympathy wrenched him, deep inside. Some unheard echo welled up from beneath his weary spirit. The accusation struck him, and he could not find it in him to call it wrong. Nathan struggled until he could sit up. His heart pounded dully in his ears.

“How dare you!” Amib’s fingers laced together. There was so much power in that anger. So much power in that passion. Amib’s weakness had lain in his denial. Faced with the unbearable truth, he was abandoning denial. Nathan could feel that. It was pure rejection, not denial, mustering against him now.

Nathan got to one knee before the attack hit. He crossed his arms across his face, sheltering his blood–speckled eyes. His wings couldn’t lift quickly enough to shelter the rest of him. Amib’s fury tore at his defenses. It ripped ragged holes in their span. Nathan accepted this too. He welcomed it. He’d more than earned that pain.

Exhausted, Amib’s arms dropped. Nathan pushed himself forward, springing from his kneeling position. He came in low, with his right arm tucked across his chest. He swung his right elbow across his path until it connected with Amib’s damaged shin. Fragile, unnatural healing gave way to the impact. Amib’s fractured bones fell apart. As Amib dropped past him, Nathan swung his left arm across the Marat’s collapsing back. He shoved Amib down to the floor. Amib plowed face–first into the carpet.

Nathan was already turning by the time Amib hit the ground. It was time to end this, and send Amib home. Determination mixed with will, and flooded down to Nathan’s fingertips. His wings hunched forward over his shoulders, dripping his spirit’s bright blood down his back. He waited for Amib to face him one last time.

Amib froze. An awful shudder went through the world around them.

Nathan staggered. Unspeakable loss tore at the fabric of reality. Overwhelming pressure quelled everything but the shaking in his bones. His wings shuddered out of the living world. His hands dropped to his sides.

Disbelief set into Amib’s expression. There was no room for disbelief in Nathan. Grief seized him instead. Nathan’s head bowed.

“No!” Amib collided with Nathan, and shoved him into the wall. Nathan let him go. Nothing could have stopped Amib from reaching that doorway.

Amib clung to the door frame, shaking violently from head to toe. Then he dove into the room. He landed on his knees. He pulled his wife’s body off the floor, into his quaking arms. “NO!”

Nathan stared down at Samuel. Nameless hatred stained that younger spirit, crying out to any heart that would listen. The last echoes of a sister’s broken voice hiked the Makhvet’s wings over his shoulders, and stirred violence in his heavy heart.

“Her name…” Amib whispered brokenly. “It fades!”

It was already gone. Whatever illusion Amib clung to, this alqem was lost.

“Please,” Amib begged. “Come back to me, my love!” Amib’s hand cradled his wife’s face, and his thumb pushed a tear from her cheek. Senseless eyes stared back at him. Hollow. They looked so hollow. Nathan knew he could see blue–green eyes staring up at the world, but to him they looked like holes in her skull. Empty. She was just an empty frame.

“What have you done?” Amib wailed. He crushed that empty frame against him, and rocked her gently. She swayed with him, limp and unresisting. The effect turned Nathan’s stomach, and turned his face aside.

Samuel sat up slowly. His thin shoulders were pulled in. His breathing was ragged and heavy. He looked even smaller than his vessel really was.

Nathan’s attention fixed numbly on those little features. He leaned against the door’s frame. He gripped it for support. Amib’s question hung in the air. No answer met it at all. No answer was needed. It was so painfully clear what Samuel had done.

An inhuman grimace contorted Amib’s features. Nathan caught the motion in his peripheral vision. That empty frame dropped to the carpet. In a flash, Amib had Samuel up against the wall. Glass cut viciously into Amib’s fingers as he slashed at Samuel’s throat.

Nathan was less than a breath behind. He seized Amib’s shoulder with a grip so cruel that it released the Marat’s hold on the glass. Nathan wrenched that arm behind Amib, and yanked him away from the wall.

“What remains of your duty lies here!” Nathan’s reclaimed voices boomed, becoming as thunder in the small room. He bore the Marat down. He forced Amib all the way to the floor, bringing the bereft Image face to face with the woman he’d loved. Nathan’s eyes slipped to Esa, and the stench of rot cut through all else. He seethed at Amib, “Soon you will taste the bitterness you served another, that meted out its punishment this way!”

Amib struggled. Nathan’s torn wings hiked up above them. Their overwhelming presence quelled the Marat, and stilled him under Nathan’s grasp.

“Go and tend to your grief!” He bent low over Amib, his wings splaying above. His whisper reached only the Marat’s ears. “Cling to what you have, for as long as it remains, if that is your wish.” His voice strengthened, and his wings lifted. “Stay and you will be delivered from both by my hand.”

Then he released his pressure on Amib, and stood. He looked down at them, his heart emptied by their plight. He stood ready for Amib’s choice, whatever it might be.

Amib’s face turned up to Nathan’s. Confusion and helplessness fought with fury in his features.

Nathan lifted a hand, and pointed to the door. “Go.”

Amib gathered his wife to him. He slipped his hands gently under her knees and her back. She was so impossibly light. As Amib rose, he spoke. His own words were venom, each one carefully chosen.

“The only failed leader of the Gate’s glory is the only creature who would protect this wretch.” His voice hissed, activating the hallway’s runes one last time. His words drove deep into the Makhvet’s living form. “Heaven and Hell pursue any who would make end to a nurturing spirit, and anyone who protects him! The world swallows up the villain who would leave her unbound servant drifting, tormented and alone!”

Nathan nodded, meeting Amib’s glare evenly. Turmoil rose in him. His spirit rejected it. Rejection weakened him, but it kept emotion at bay. Nathan’s arm dropped back to his side, and he waited. Amib still had a choice. There was nothing left but to carry it out.

Overcome by grief, Amib clutched Nicole to him tightly. He carried her past Nathan, through the doorway. There he stopped. “My innocence!” he cried. He turned. He glared at the Makhvet. “I shall open his eyes to the sun! I swear it!”

“Mercy favor you, that you may see it yourself soon enough.” Though his voice was gentle, Nathan’s features may as well have been carved of stone. His expression remained blank, but he knew his eyes were blazing.

“But you have no mercy, do you!” Amib screamed, “No mercy, no honor, and no heart!”

Blue–white fire overtook Nathan’s eyes completely. His hand whipped forward. A wall of air slammed into Amib, driving him back into the hallway. The gesture left Amib dazed. Amib fought for breath. The air left in the corridor was thin, and difficult to pull into his lungs.

The woman in Amib’s arms whimpered weakly. Amib spun, putting the room behind him. He ran for the stairwell. Only his heart still cried. It twisted and burned in his chest, screaming for revenge. It wailed through those tendrils of influence connecting them, and hissed echoes of Amib’s hateful words.

Nathan’s frail calm shattered. Memory welled up faster than he could quell it. His head bowed, and his wings dropped. His fists balled up at his sides. What he had rejected now overcame him. He forced himself to let it all course through. He accepted it all, so it would never reach his thoughts. His entire being fled away from his thoughts, and waited for them to ebb.

Then he clung to a choice. His wings lifted again. They hung heavy on his shoulders. Their weight was familiar, deeply comforting in its own way. So was the clarity that chilled him, and stilled him from within. Under his inner angel’s influence, he wasn’t angry. He wasn’t in pain. He wasn’t shaken.

He wasn’t anything.

Part Twenty–One

Nathan’s body relaxed. He turned. His feathers whispered against the fading stirs of a bitter wind, one dying slowly around them. He approached the nearest of the twin beds. His eyes met Esa’s. He braced himself against what the sight of her evoked.

Pain came welling up from the angel’s old wounds. Rot burned in his throat, evoking putrefaction of flesh and spirit that still hadn’t completely healed. Nathan watched Esa’s face, aching in a way no physical pain could express.

To anyone else’s eyes, Esa’s stare might have looked empty. When Nathan met it, he saw familiar suffering. Twice now, he had been driven down by that poison. It was no mere chemical. It was nothing so simple as a spiritual charm. It had properties of both, and the boundaries of neither. It was beyond his understanding.

Whatever it was, it had bound him to his vessel, there to slowly take him apart from within. Nathan watched the panic in Esa’s sightless eyes, helplessly echoing her pain. The further down the venom took her, the less of that pain he could share. He had few cohesive memories past the point where the world fell away.

“I have slain her,” Samuel whispered brokenly, pulling himself from the floor.

“She lives,” Nathan said softly. “Hope remains.”

“I am beyond hope,” Samuel stood unsteadily, and joined Nathan near the bed. In a few short steps he shredded his dirty linen bindings cruelly. Slivers of silvered glass tangled in what remained. He left small, bloody footprints on the shards he crossed. “I did not take enough. I have slain her hope.”

“Explain to me.” Nathan’s boots crunched the same debris beneath him. He circled the bed, and stood across from Samuel on the far side.

“Her captors kept this affliction at bay,” Samuel sat on the mattress beside Esa, heedless of the hazard surrounding her. “The memories I’ve taken are too disordered. They tell me nothing of how the alqa could tend to these wounds.”

Esa moaned. She convulsed, and grabbed at empty air. Samuel took her hand in his, though her grip tightened cruelly around his smaller bones. Nathan’s body quivered in quiet sympathy. He looked down at his hands, then dropped them again.

“Without their attentions, it ravages. There isn’t time for me to learn why.” Samuel’s tears welled up again, and dripped down bloodied cheeks. “Esa slips from me even now.”

Nathan kicked what mirror shards he could under the bed. He swept them off the bedspread and knocked them out of sight. It was a largely hopeless task, but something he could do. He felt unsteady, but he did it this way anyway. His mind fled into contemplation of the task. At times like this, it was best to stick to natural means. Apart from whipping slivers into the air or breaking them into even keener bits, his talents offered him few options anyway.

Of course he was branded a destroyer. He had so few tools for anything else. He wasn’t a healer. He wasn’t even that good at healing himself. He wasn’t someone who understood how to bring another heart back together. He wasn’t normally placed in anyone’s path to rescue them. He arrived when rescue was beyond reach. That was his role. He was the one who let go. What could he offer to Samuel right now?

What had he to offer anyone, but his own pain?

The thought connected. My own pain. He lifted his gaze.

“I have survived this venom twice. Have you taken any echo of this from me?”

Samuel shook his head. “Only what lived in your heart when I struck.” He gathered Esa’s wounded hand in his, watching her corrupted blood drain away.

Of course. Memories came rushing back to Nathan. He glimpsed bits and pieces of a dozen lives, and their brutal ends. He’d learned this before. Samuel couldn’t choose what he took. Samuel couldn’t control that portion of his strange talent. None of the Sepulchres ever could. Whatever he pierced, he absorbed, whether he could cope with it or not.

Nathan’s wings shivered. One of many reasons Samuel had surprised him in the museum, no doubt. He’d lured Nathan into a place that would stir everything to the surface. He’d been looking for whatever came strongest to Nathan’s heart.

“Tell me, then. Tell me how you survived.”

Samuel’s question brought a rush of heat with it. These were memories which burned away any remnant of his icy calm. Nathan coughed a little, shifting uncomfortably. He looked away. He tried to keep those thoughts at bay. He did his best to distract himself with the effort to nudge broken glass under the bed.

There wasn’t time for this. He had to keep his mind on task.

“It was with the help of another,” Nathan said, his voice tightening a little despite his efforts. “A sister, one who followed Michael.”

“And she removed this venom,” Samuel urged, his eyes wide and hopeful. “How! Spare not a moment, tell me!”

Nathan’s head swam, and he flushed. So vivid, the memory, that he caught her scent with it— touches of cedar and myrrh, blending into earthy loam, with peppercorns crushed underfoot. A smell that called to mind ancient forests, carried to him by the air stirring beneath her wings. She’d barely ever opened her wings in his presence before. That earthen scent overwhelmed him entirely when she used her talents to reach him. His breath caught in his throat. His heart raced. Her hands sinking into his chest, pushing through skin and bone, finding their way… He closed his eyes, and shuddered.

“What she did… I don’t understand it. I can’t put words to it. I would not tell you wrongly, Samuel, I would not take the risk.”

Nathan forced his eyes open, and knelt beside the bed. His hand darted beneath it. He found a sliver that would serve. Glass dug into his fingers as he withdrew it.

Nathan handed the mirror shard to Samuel. His Malakhrit slipped into familiar syllables, more modernized combinations of timeless words. “Fucking hell,” he muttered, his tone turning affectionate, “You twisted psycho. I can’t believe I’m about to let you do this to me, and willingly.”

Samuel’s eyes dropped to the shard, and he accepted it from Nathan. His wings unfolded behind him, and their scent suffused the small room. Deep and dark, those wings, their sheen brighter as Samuel’s power gathered to him. Nathan pulled their scent in, until it replaced the one possessing him.

What took a moment seemed to stretch on forever. Anticipation dilated the time around him. Nathan’s battered wings lowered, though he could not force himself to tuck them back. They jerked, aching to reach forward— to rise against what he knew would come next.

The scent of Samuel’s wings calmed him. Rich and spiced, burning autumn leaves and toasted clove. Cinnamon and nutmeg, smells that evoked warmth gathered against oncoming cold. The heady scent of sandalwood, stronger in Samuel than in anyone Nathan knew, swirled it all together and scattered Nathan’s thoughts.

The upper knuckles of Nathan’s wings tipped outward, and widened their posture. Tingling prickles ran down the delicate skin of his wings, lifting feathers in their wake. They puffed away from each other, soft cream–colored down drifting in air stirred by Samuel’s feathers. So many memories. So much of Nathan’s inner self welled up in response to this familiar presence.

The mirror’s glint snapped him out of that. Memories of Samuel were not what Nathan needed living in his heart right now. Nathan closed his eyes, and pulled his arms back. His bruised chest rose, undefended. He summoned up the memories he wanted Samuel to take. A jealous twinge panged him in the moment between thoughts. Some deeper part of him resented sharing these moments with anyone. His virtue smoothed that pang away. Nathan sank into the memory he needed, surrendering to it completely.

Torment beyond description. Rot that drew him away, pulled him piece from writhing piece. Locked within himself, helpless. Driven further and further down, as his spirit leaked away into a world he could not reach.

Then the spread of her wings above him, glimpsed as though from the bottom of an impossibly deep well. A speck of light that drove him to follow. Up and up, until he felt her fingers, pushing through his flesh. A call moving in his blood. This was power that drew on all his boundaries, all his defenses, and pulled them into her service.

Unable to move, unable to speak, how he had ached to respond to that call! Every cell in his body screamed unheard, possessed by his dying spirit. Alleish! Alleish!

Don’t leave!

Don’t leave again!

Dimly he felt glass punch through the left side of his chest, and bury itself in taut muscle. The pain that followed bit deeper. It burned and burrowed. Nathan felt himself draining into the wound. He fell to his knees, pitching forward as he hit the ground. His palms stopped him.

Her echoes flooded through the pain. His back arched, and he shuddered from the loss. Her call still haunted him, still stirred his blood from within. Striking, the memory of her fingers lifting, drawing corruption up towards that tiny, distant light— leaving him helpless, watching her dwindle away. What he would have given, even to have been able to open his eyes!

Nathan opened them now. Ice blue eyes turned up to find Samuel, and rich brown wings stretched forward. Samuel sat against the bed. He tensed. The memory he’d taken shook Samuel’s pinions, and tinted his pale eyes. He dropped the bloodstained glass.

Nathan sat up slowly. He stretched out a hand, and with it offered his support. “Accept this,” he whispered. His will and his virtue drove the command. Blue shimmers danced across night–black feathers as they puffed out, opening away from each other. A rare sight, from those wings. An answering shiver ran through Nathan’s back.

Samuel pulled himself up on the bed, and dropped his eyes to Esa’s. “So that is how I must draw the wound,” he murmured. “I understand it now.”

Carefully, Samuel lifted Esa’s stricken hand. Curdled blood still oozed, black and reeking, from the cut Nathan could see. Samuel’s fingers threaded into slashed bandages. He unwound them, pulling their pieces aside. He revealed a bite Nathan couldn’t look at for long. Esa’s skin fulminated around four deep punctures. Her flesh was sinking away beneath the bites. Bits of it sloughed off even under Samuel’s gentle attentions.

Samuel leaned forward. His wings lifted and spread above them, sheltering them beneath their darkness. Samuel stroked Esa’s awful wound. His black feathers whispered, caressing burdened air. He let out a gentle sigh. Softly he closed his eyes. His head tipped forward, and he placed his lips over the bites.

“What? You idiot!” Nathan lurched forward. He seized Samuel’s shoulder, but he could not pry Samuel away.

Boiling black overtook the pale light in Samuel’s eyes. His lips cracked and peeled in moments. Before Nathan could blink, these cracks began weeping murky fluid. Purpled veins snaked up into Samuel’s face, traced beneath pale skin. His small frame shuddered, and his wings fluttered out of sight.

Nathan poured his angelic strength into the struggle. Samuel could not be moved. The child’s grip tightened, crushing his lips to Esa’s ruined flesh. Nathan gave up, and knelt beside Samuel instead. The boy’s body convulsed, but would not let Esa go.

With an arm around Samuel’s shoulders, Nathan pulled his wings close around them both. He tried to suffuse Samuel with his power, to offer anything he could to the angel’s vessel. Even as Nathan steadied the boy’s shivering body, the angel Samuel sank away from Nathan’s reach.

Samuel drew in so much, so swiftly! Nathan felt old wounds of his own beginning to boil and fester in response to what filled Samuel’s body. He knew it was fear, not fact, that made him imagine this. He fought the urge to shrink away.

Corrupted fluid began seeping from Samuel’s nostrils, filling the sinuses behind them until it spilled from his blackened eyes. Samuel succumbed to the venom much more swiftly than either Nathan or Esa had. His flesh peeled back from the contact, deteriorating before Nathan’s eyes. The stench was swiftly becoming more than Nathan could bear, but he refused to let go.

Esa stirred. She blinked her glassy eyes. She moaned, slowly taking in the world around her. Her free hand reached up, and felt her raggedly cropped hair. The hand Samuel gripped lifted. What remained of Samuel’s mouth slipped from her wound. Crimson blood trailed from his ruined lips. The cleansed pit in her forearm began to close. Purified blood was already smoking away from the wound.

Nathan caught Samuel’s sagging body. Esa’s eyes found sight, then found Samuel. She saw the pitch black consuming his sightless eyes, and she wailed.

“Eisadei!” Nathan’s voice was a whip–crack through her senses. His wings snapped out, turning his invocation of her name into a demand. Her eyes fixed on him. He waited a breath, for recognition to set in.

“Malavai!” The cry tore at Nathan’s heart, filled with terrified trust. “Help me! He’s dying!”

Esa tried to get up. Frantic hands tried to pull Samuel closer to her. Nathan helped her, lifting Samuel’s shivering body into her arms. She cradled his head against her arm, and wept. “I can’t heal him! I can’t reach him! Why?!”

“His faith in you will sustain him,” Nathan said, his voice demanding her focus. He spoke as Samuel would, in tightly intertwined words that packed all his meaning into two or three syllables per thought. “We must make use of the time.” He laid a hand on Esa’s arm, and caught her gaze in his. “Eisadei, now awakened. Your name exalts you as it speaks of cleansing fire.” He urged her, “Your servant is polluted in spirit and body. As you love him, burn him clean!”

A solemn nod. Esa’s arms tightened, pulling Samuel more tightly to her. She closed her eyes. Soft white glimmers hovered at the edge of perception around her, tracing the outline of her wings. Tears gathered beneath her lashes, and one rolled down her nose. It fell from there to Samuel’s black–threaded cheek. When it struck, it ignited. Samuel closed his polluted eyes.

Fire spread across Samuel’s face instantly. It caught his fine gray hair, shrinking it into tiny melted curls before eating it away. Samuel relaxed a little in Esa’s unscathed arms. Cracked lips twitched, attempting a smile as they burned. The flames raced down his body, setting his ill–fitting suit alight. His skin blackened, then faded from view. All Nathan could see was that raging, reddening fire.

Heat forced Nathan to draw away. Acrid smoke gathered around the pair. An alarm went off, then swiftly died. The smoke became a seething gray vortex. It blotted out Nathan’s sight and burned his nostrils. He dropped to the carpet. Embers fell upon the bedsheets, there to smolder but not to burn. Aside from scorching, and piling the bed in swiftly building ash, the fire touched nothing else.

Samuel became the heart of a roiling inferno in Esa’s arms. Billows of flame rumbled low in the air. The fire’s heat drove Nathan away from the bed, and put a sheen of fresh perspiration on his alabaster skin. The sprinklers above them popped, melted wax oozing along neglected metal. A little rusty water drooled from broken pipes, and hit Nathan’s sweat–soaked hair.

Esa held tightly to Samuel as he burned. She whispered to him, unafraid of the heat pouring past her. Ash flaked off his body, and crumbled on the bedspread. Bits of molten fat dripped away, fizzling to nothing before they reached fabric. Slowly the flames ebbed.

So terribly small, the figure in Esa’s arms. She held a charred memento that had once looked human. A quick convulsion ran through Nathan’s body, a gag reflex he quickly stifled. Chills ran through his flesh until he managed to quiet them. It was an instinctive reaction to what he saw, and nothing more. That tiny bundle struck at something deep and undeniable in the human psyche. There was no skin left exposed, and somehow that was the worst part of it. What remained was just the vague shape of a boy cast in charcoal, except for those clutching hands. The detail in those hands. Little fingers curled in on themselves, fused to one another where they held on to Esa’s arm.

Cracks ran through plated charcoal. Bit by bit they widened. Esa caressed the boy’s cheek gently, shifting one of these plates in the process. It flaked away. Healthy pink skin peeked out from beneath, filling in and pushing out the shell of ash around. Another plate dislodged. It hit the bedspread, and crumbled.

Nathan retreated to the second of the twin beds. He pulled the bedsheets off the bed, and shook them out. He folded them carefully, and returned to Esa. He helped her swaddle Samuel in them, as she exposed more and more of that vulnerable skin.

“Thank you,” Esa whispered, her eyes still on Samuel. She pried at the plate over his head. This one was stubborn, containing hair melted and fused with burnt scalp. When it dislodged, a short tuft of gray hair fell from it. Once it settled, wispy strands framed what she’d exposed of Samuel’s sleeping face.

“You need not thank me,” Nathan murmured.

“I will never forget it, Malavai.” A stab of something went through Nathan’s heart, when she said that. He pushed the feeling down before it could be felt completely.

“He will mend. There is clothing at my home which should fit him well enough to travel. When he is recovered enough, take your pick from it.” The weight in his heart drew itself out in a heavy sigh. “I can protect him that much, I think. I can offer no more. The dying accusation of an alqem will draw out violence from all sides. Even I might be outmatched before long.”

Esa nodded. She looked down to her Image with absolute devotion. When his pale eyes opened, they returned the same. Comfort eased the boy’s expression. Samuel closed his eyes. He drifted back to sleep in her arms. He was stilled, now, in spirit as well as body. His madness would not return.

“He is stained,” Esa whispered. “Even I cannot purge that from his spirit.” A tear slid down her flushed cheek. “My Samuel,” Esa’s misery was heartbreaking. “Oh Samuel. What have you done?”

“He did what was necessary, Alle,” the familiar address slipped from him before he could stop it, and he averted his eyes. “It was a mercy, in truth, though she was too far gone to know it.”

“Cruel mercies,” Esa pursed her lips. “They follow you both so doggedly.”

“They do.” Nathan rubbed his face, leaving charcoal streaks on his cheeks. He hesitated. He didn’t know how to ask what he needed to ask her next.

Esa’s eyes picked up a deep green light. She turned her attention to Nathan, and tilted her head a little. “It’s all right, Malavai.” She smiled gently past her pain. “Your heart makes the offer for you. My answer is no. It’s not our way.”

Nathan nodded. “It might not even be wise. Necessity or not, with that stain upon him no corner of Creation will be safe for his ravaged spirit.” His eyes found hers, and softened their gaze. “At least if you remain in the living world he can hide from that debt long enough to settle it. As long as you are safe somewhere, he will eventually recover.” Nathan rubbed his own chest absently. Old wounds still stirred beneath his skin. “Even from this.”

“Look at him,” Esa whispered. “He’s so young. We’ve missed our timing completely.”

Nathan nodded. There was no comfort he could give, for that.

“He needs someone to take care of him right now,” Esa murmured. She cradled Samuel, a child in her sheltering arms, and kissed his forehead gently. The familial gesture forced Nathan to look away. “Sweeter endings will wait for better lives.”

“A cruel fate,” Nathan whispered. “One neither of you deserved.”

“It will be all right.” Her smile was vaguely sad, but sincere. That expression was all too familiar, and Nathan fought desperately to keep that memory down. He focused on Esa as she continued. “You know how it is. We take the roles we have, when we live as they do. If it is as mothers we are needed, mothers we shall be.”

Nathan squeezed his eyes shut, and nodded. His breath stolen, he waited to regain it. He opened his eyes slowly, and pushed damp strands of hair away from his forehead. He couldn’t help it. He could see her. He could see Elise smiling that soft, sad smile. Practicality itself bearing up under misfortune and lonely times. Then the memory released him, and he was grateful for the reprieve.

Esa was still talking, her voice low and soothing. “Eventually he’ll have to answer for what he’s done. Until then, it’s right that we should flee. It’s been we two against the world before.”

Nathan settled next to them on the bed, and reached a comforting hand towards her shoulder. “You will always find shelter with me, Alle—”

Samuel’s little fingers snared his wrist, digging hard into the skin. Flakes of charcoal still cracked along the backs of Samuel’s fingers. Eyes of pure ice found Nathan’s, and the invective Samuel uttered split the air between them.


Nathan returned the gaze steadily, his captured wrist unresisting.

Esa’s eyes widened, and she stared down at Samuel in pure shock. “Samuel! Do you understand what he’s done for you?”

Samuel’s weary voice slipped into English, slurring a little. “We understand each other better than we should.”

Nathan could only look at those small fingers, and nod.

“I thank you for your help, Makhvet.” Samuel released Nathan’s wrist, and closed his eyes. He settled back into Esa’s arms. “But if you approach my Esa again as you are, one of us shall see the sun.”

Esa looked stricken. Her upturned eyes glowed a silent plea for forgiveness. Nathan gave her a slight shake of his head. She needed no forgiveness from him.

“I have seen the path you walk.” Samuel went on, his voice calm but weakened. “It must never cross with hers. Nor the path of your prodigal child.”

Nathan listened. Samuel’s words found roots deep in his own heart. He bowed his head, offering neither objection nor argument.

Samuel went on, “The fate you have accepted—” Guilt squeezed Nathan’s chest, burdened his breathing. Old wounds ached, and the smell of corrupted blood filled his senses. Samuel’s voice drove this feeling deeper. “It makes of death a comfort, and destruction a companion.”

Samuel opened his eyes. Feeling that icy gaze upon him, Nathan could not help but meet it.

“You must bear its darkness alone.”

“He speaks the truth.” Nathan stood abruptly. He pulled his coat a little tighter around him, tugging that familiar weight across his shoulders. He shook the remaining ash from it.

“Malavai, wait.” Esa sounded so bewildered, so very sad. “I’m sure whatever it is, we can—”

Nathan lifted a hand to stop her, and to serve as farewell.

“Tend to your servant. He has sacrificed much, for the peace only you can bring.” Long strides swept Nathan over her threshold before she could answer, and carried him out of her sight.

Nathan didn’t break that stride until he reached the stairwell, and laid his hand against the handle. Anguish flooded him, and stopped him in place. Echoes, left there by Amib’s hand. Ragged edges, torn piece from piece, left adrift in this lonely place.

Nathan closed his eyes. He pushed the handle. He opened his eyes, then, and descended the steps alone.

Part Twenty–Two

Ben had never really walked all night before.

There had been long nights, sure. Tagging along with Nathan, especially in the early days, could lead to a lot of walking. They always rested, though.

It felt different, without resting.

One foot in front of the other, over and over, wherever he wanted to go. It was a slow, plodding way to progress, but it had taken him a really long way. He didn’t even really know where he was.

The sky was getting lighter. Most of it was fading from deep purple to pale gray. It was turning a little pink over Ben’s left shoulder, so he was probably still going south.

He was pretty far into the canals, he knew that much. They had turned into a mess around him. They were worms of water squirming between mounds of reedy mud. They wiggled out ahead on both sides, as Ben emerged from the last few scraps of treeline.

Ben could tell it had taken a lot of effort, to put this road in the middle of all that. The shoulder was built up really high above the marsh, and there was a ton of gravel clinging to the concrete. There were still ribbons of mud laying across the road, in places where the water washed over.

There were things Ben always figured he’d never do. Finding the ends of these canals pretty should probably have gone on that list. Ben just never thought about the possibility. Until today the idea wouldn’t even have made sense. This far south, with all the city runoff far behind him, the canals weren’t anything close to what Ben grew up knowing them to be. The mud wasn’t sickly gray here. It looked rich and dark, not like the pale mucus that came to mind when the city flooded. Down here, the canals were full of life, not death.

There were all kinds of plants out here. There was grass so tall and thick that animals could disappear inside it. Ben never got a good look at any of them— they all ran away when he got close— but he was impressed with how alive this place really was. Ben drew in a deep breath, and wondered about all the smells. Wet smells. Growing smells. Ew, some poo smells too. He really did scare those animals.

Ben let all the air out.

As a little more light warmed the sky, those worms of water took on a mirrored shine. Everything looked different, under that pale sky. The greens seemed so vivid, and the little red flowers stood out so richly against that background. Even the reddish clay looked vibrant. Everything looked so much more real than what he grew up with. It made him see the whole world a different way.

Ben wanted to love it. He wanted to laugh out loud, and revel in it all. He wanted to be excited and amazed.

He just couldn’t manage it, on his own.

Ben wondered how far he’d gotten. Just as he was about to give up on guessing, he saw something up ahead that answered his question. The great big city limits sign. They had one here too. Ben shrugged. It stood to reason, he guessed, that they would put one on every road leading out.

Ben walked up to it, reading in big bold letters about how he was now leaving the city. He’d usually looked for this kind of sign from the opposite side, when the fun of a day trip was eroding under the boredom of riding in a car. No matter which welcome sign the car approached, seeing it started a countdown to finally reaching home.

Ben had trained himself in sarcasm, looking at those signs. They always made such an effort proclaiming how awesome it was to live in his city. Every once in a while they’d take a new approach— and that would usually happen a little while after some news headline made the last one deeply ironic.

Come to the best city ever! Feel safe because of our wonderful crime rate! Oh damn, we just had a psycho killer in the park. We have the best planned communities! Crap, did that one just fall into the flood? Be a part of our expanding business future! Whoops, turns out half the shops in both malls are empty and boarded up since the big box store opened. Embrace our family values!

That one stuck. Meaning: it stayed on the sign. Also meaning: it stuck in Ben’s proverbial craw.

Ben kicked a rock. He shouldn’t be bitter. It wasn’t that way for everybody.

He stuck his tongue out, and kicked the next rock at the sign.

Ben walked past the sign without looking back. He didn’t need to see that stupid slogan ever again. There was an actual horizon in front of him. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen one with his own eyes before. A world laid wide open, with hardly anything blocking his view. A world that stretched out in front of Ben in every direction he could go, and all of them unknown.

Ben stopped.

He sighed.

“I should have known better.”

Ben lifted his eyes into that slowly warming sky. All those little sprinkles of stars were already gone. He should have walked faster. They would have been brighter out here.

“I should have known I couldn’t run from you.”

Ben didn’t turn around when he said it. He didn’t have to. What was it about those eyes, that he always seemed to feel them on him? He could picture Nathan waiting there, leaning against that big dumb sign. He didn’t need to give the angel the satisfaction of looking.

“That’s further than you’ve ever been on your own before,” Nathan said softly. “Feel any different?”

“No,” Ben admitted. “I thought I would.” His eyes fell to his shoes. A heavy shrug. “But I just don’t.”

It was so quiet out here. He could hear grass rustling in the wind. He could hear that wooden sign creak a little as Nathan pushed off it. He could hear those narrow boots grinding into gravel, then clapping against pavement when they got close. The coat flapping behind Nathan reminded Ben of the time he got tied to the flagpole at school. Ben shuddered.

Nathan didn’t say anything. He stood beside Ben, and looked into the sky with him. His blond hair tossed in the wind, caked with blood. His shirt and his coat were all torn up. He was so dirty. There were streaks all over his cheeks.

Ben tried to imagine what would happen next. He stole a few worried glances in Nathan’s direction, but he didn’t want Nathan to see him looking. He was doing his very best to be strong. Ben shoved his hands deep into his pockets. Silence hung between them until he couldn’t stand it. He broke it with the question he feared most.

“Did you get Esa back?”


The answer sank into Ben’s stomach, and became a cold pit of dread. He made himself nod.

“Okay then.”

Pastel purples were mixing with pinks over Ben’s left shoulder. Nathan was blocking some of the really pretty colors. Well, he couldn’t really block them, but his presence was keeping Ben from looking that way.

Ben bit his lip. He’d watched a lot of sunrises from the bay window, but this was so much bigger. So much brighter, with so many colors in between the ones Ben could name. There wasn’t orange yet, but there would be soon. Maybe he’d get to wait for the really bright oranges. Maybe Nathan would wait, if he could get up the courage to ask. They always set off the clouds, turning those pastel pinks into all kinds of brighter and darker shades.

Pink. Ben blinked. His eyes stung. Why had he ever hated pink? Why had he ever been mean about it? It was so soft. It was so warm. All the colors were good, when they were in the right places. Why had Ben ever complained about any of them? Why had he ever complained about anything at all?

“So the deal with you and the spirit,” Ben murmured. “It’s over.”


Ben wished Nathan would answer things with more than one syllable. That’s how it was, though. That was one prayer that would never get answered. Pretty sentiments and angelic comforts were for other people. People who deserved them.

Ben rocked back on his heels, then stood straight again. He tried that a few more times, because fidgeting felt a little better than the silence did. Then he started get worried about how many times he’d done it, so he made himself stop.

“Then I guess I know what happens next.” Ben’s cheeks stung, and he felt like he couldn’t swallow right. His throat was all choked up.

Nathan’s face turned. Ben finally looked up. A few of those bright oranges had finally reached the sky, and spilled across Nathan’s golden hair. Pink and purple traced molten lines, painting reflective squiggles over those strange blue things framing Nathan’s face. The rosy light actually made Nathan look like he had color in his dirt–smeared complexion. It made the ice blue in his eyes glow a vibrant contrast.

“If you do,” Nathan said softly, “That makes this a lot easier.”

“Of course I do,” Ben took a deep breath. He could do one nice thing, that was all he could manage. He could lie to the angel. “And I’m ready.”

“That’s good,” Nathan’s hand settled on Ben’s shoulder.

Ben closed his eyes. He braced himself, and tried not to cry.

Nathan’s hand squeezed his shoulder gently.

Ben listened for the swish of Nathan’s wings. How much he wanted to hate that sound! He could still hear it in his memory, and it was more comforting than Ben could bear. Ben waited for the floaty feeling that meant the angel was sending him out of the world. He tried so hard not to show how terrified he was of what lay beyond.

“Let’s go, then.” Nathan’s hand lifted away. The angel started walking past him.

Ben opened his eyes. He blinked. He turned, and watched the angel walk toward that stupid sign.


Nathan stopped right beneath the city limits sign. He looked toward its giant lettering, then back to Ben. Ben couldn’t be sure, with the angel’s hair flying past his face like that, but he thought he saw an eyebrow arch.

“Home,” Nathan said.

Nathan went back to walking, and passed the sign. The wind caught his camel coat. Fabric billowed on chilled gusts. Ben could see light showing through all the fresh rips.

“Home?” Ben’s mind finally caught up to him. He shook his head, and called after the angel. “You should do it here! People find bodies out here all the time. It doesn’t make sense to do it in the apartment!”

Nathan stopped. He twisted in place, just enough so he could look over his shoulder at Ben. He stood tall and slim in the middle of the road, his hair blowing past his eyes. His coat flapped a little, and he peered past its bloodied collar.

“Do what?”

“Do what?!” Ben flushed. His ears burned. Confusion was starting to verge on anger. Why would he draw this out? “There’s nobody hostage anymore, right? So aren’t you going to kill me?”

Nathan turned to fully face Ben. His eyes shone so vividly. They were like bright blue stars. He took a step closer to Ben. His voice was low, but Ben could feel the words beneath the wind.

“Do you want me to?”

Nathan presented the question without emotion. He stood waiting for an answer. The wind pushed his hair into his face, and whipped his coat against his jeans.

Ben stared. At last, he managed to get words out.

“Well… no!”

“Then what are you babbling about?” Nathan turned his back on Ben, and resumed walking. Ben had to run to catch up to him, and then fell into step beside the angel.

“The deal’s off!” Ben didn’t want to be arguing this, but sheer confusion drove him to. “So there’s no reason to protect me anymore! You’re free to kill me!” Ben’s frustration put a squeak in his voice. “It’s what I’ve been expecting for six years! Now the day’s finally here, and you’re acting like you don’t know?”

“Don’t be an idiot.” Nathan didn’t look at him. His eyes were distant, fixed on the city stretching out ahead. “Just because you’re expecting something doesn’t mean it’s got to happen.”


“If you want to die, I’ll release your soul.” Nathan stopped, and Ben looked up at him. The angel’s expression was serious, but his voice was strangely muted. “You can be free any time you want to, do you understand?”

“I get that, but—”

“Well, then,” Nathan started walking again, “Stop yapping and move your ass.”



The End of Everything



We didn’t lie to you.

You’ll see that in time.

The question is…

…will they?



We’ll see you off to ‘Greener Pastures’ next time. You don’t have to lie down. For now, enjoy the last of our older side stories, ‘Death by Chocolate.’ From here on out it’ll be all new material accompanying our main story, some of it challenging. One last breath of nostalgia, and then we’re off to a brave new world.


Death By Chocolate


Copyright © 2007 Aleph. All Rights Reserved.

Part One

Like Venice, But Not.

People compared this to Venice. It was nothing like Venice, the angel decided. The canals of Venice held, at the worst, a bit of sewage. Their pollution never compared to the Thames. They were cool and bright, sparkling in the sun. And he missed them, dearly.

The waterways of Venezuela reeked with something more fetid than human waste, and held dangers that seemed malicious in their very design. They were crowded with vegetation, which in turn funneled stagnant drips from pools in the canopy above. The heat was unbearable, trapped by the stiff wool uniform he was still fond of wearing. Even with their itching, these soldier’s clothes were his, and preferable to the garish local costumes he could afford. So he sat there, miserable, uncomfortable, with gangly legs folded up to his chest and blonde hair flattened to his face with perspiration.

It made men such as the boatman look at him strangely. Wearing next to nothing under their brightly coloured ponchos, they would snicker as he went by, and give him nicknames in the language of ancients. Somewhere deep inside him, the angel still understood these words. He remembered their rivers of silver, their golden cornstalks and intricate lost–wax dolls. All human memories of their traditions were fading from the earth, as their children mixed with creole blood and the languages combined. At the height of their kingdoms they had never spread so far east of the ceja, the great brow of the mountains— now they mixed with the coastal natives as much as they mixed with anything else. All were united in conquest, after all. All were helpless in the face of this new world.

Well, not all. The young widower, he raised cries of independence. The family the angel had come to visit could not speak highly enough of their son, and the future they believed he would have once he returned home. Some curious fate had brought their cousin to his rescue in a way, when the prisoners of Buenos Aires were forced into the deep jungle. As soon as he was safe to travel they insisted he stay at their home.

“Look at him,” the boatman said to his friend, in that mixture of Spanish and a more ancient tongue. “Folded all up like sticks, melting in the sun. We should rob him and leave him in the water. They are so fearsome when they hold the power of death, but not so tough when you separate them from their weapons.”

“I think you’ll find,” the angel snapped, in clipped British tones, “I hold the power of Death whether I lay hand on a weapon or not.”

The boatman looked shocked, and crossed himself in sudden Catholic devotion. The charms woven into his poncho said differently, but faith of convenience was no surprise to the angel.

Neither had any sway over him. The other man, however, held his attention strangely. He was older, and quieter. That man perched at the end of the boat in a comfortable squat, feeding coca leaves into his mouth one by one. He sucked them quietly, watching the angel, measuring the man.

“You should be more careful,” the man croaked to the boatman in their native tongue, “how you talk in their presence.”

“Whose presence?” The angel asked, defensive.

“You. The Children of the Sun.” He grinned, widely, and pressed another leaf against his gums.

“You are mistaken,” the angel sniffed. “I am a captured soldier dragged north across this stinking jungle from Cape Colony, not any ridiculously inbred god–king. I was born on the cliffs of Dover and I would quite happily have died there.”

“So you say,” the older man chuckled. “I say, you will never reach the end of this voyage. I say, by the time we reach the middle, you will turn your course aside.”

A strange blue light seemed to flicker through the angel’s eyes. He widened them. His stare, cold and penetrating, fixed on the older man.

“What do you mean by that?” the angel demanded. He spoke in the language of the man’s ancient ancestors, undiluted. It shocked the boatman, who dropped to the boat digging through his poncho for an ill–used rosary. The words seemed to please the older man— they provoked a smile so wide some of the damp leaves tumbled out unused. “Explain this to me.”

“I mean that you were promised to me, sir,” the old man said in slow, careful English. “Promised to come help me kill the Devil.”

Part Two

As If To Dream

p. “Such filth in the streets,” the aristocrat scoffed. “Look at them, miserable worms.”

The gaunt Frenchman by the window pulled the curtain wider, and watched the crowd below with narrowed eyes. “Sir,” he murmured, “I have seen worms transform an ox to a pile of skin and bones, given great enough numbers.” He let go of the curtain, and brushed an inky strand of hair from his ice blue eyes. “I believe they have such numbers.” So said the angel Samuel, and there was no doubting he spoke the truth.

“So,” the house patriarch boomed, from the top of his grand staircase. “They come to arrest me at last.”

All eyes turned from the drawing room to the hall.

“It would seem so,” Samuel murmured.

“I was beginning to feel insulted!” the patriarch thundered, descending to meet his family below. “I have been courting Madame la Guillotine so fervently, and till now she has refuted me!”

Samuel smiled despite himself. “She seems to have warmed to you just fine,” he responded, “But though she flings herself wide to accept you, smaller men than yourself have found her embraces uncomfortable so far.”

“Good heavens!” The mother of the house blushed as well as she could under layers of powder, rivulets of sweat cutting bright red swaths across doll–white cheeks. “How frightful a thing to say!”

“My good man, do you know the time?” The patriarch grinned at Samuel, his eyes twinkling.

“I believe it is time to flee.” Samuel bowed his head.

“Why not before?” The captain of the house’s guard seized Samuel by the collar, lifting the lighter man off his feet. “We have trusted you, and your gift of sight. Why do you tell us this now, and not the night before?”

Samuel seized the man’s left hand, squeezing it with crushing force. “Because, last night spies were posted at these doors, as they have been every night since our messengers went to Spain.” The man dropped him, and backed away. “Last night we would be followed,” Samuel continued. “Today, the tumult will confuse our movements.”

The captain growled, “You would spill our blood to cover your trail.”

Samuel growled back, colder and softer in his every tone. “Happily so.” He stripped off his jacket, and began undoing the lace at his throat. “Death is the only certainty of human life,” he snapped. “If you are to die, you may as well accomplish something by it.” Stripped down to the long underwear he wore beneath his finery, he gathered the clothes in a bundle. He threw them at the captain. “There. Take my place for a night. Live as nobility till they break down the doors. Then face your mortality as though you had lived a life worth living. It may be a stretch, but your family has been well paid for your trouble.”

The Captain wrung the garments helplessly, but could not open his mouth to object. Samuel strode past him, his voice growing louder as he approached the stairs. “All of you! Strip off your clothing, award your very lives to the staff and the scullery–maids. Trade them for their rags, for their lowly postures. Take nothing!” He stabbed a finger at the house mother, “Nothing, Madame. On your life, sneak not a bauble out under your hair. What you have sent ahead of you is all you may have.”

A wail went up behind him, a confused chatter between the family and their patriarch. Samuel paid it no attention. He closed his eyes, and felt his wings trembling in the air behind him. The excitement was almost too much to bear. He would see battle this night, he could see it unfold before him. Each step elegant, each cut devastating, each movement precise. He would cut men down like straw, leave them sliced and scattered behind him. It was not a fight he’d sought, but it was one he would savour for quite some time to come. He stretched his wings, whirled to face the terrace, to— _]

Samuel woke with a start. He sat up, eyes blazing, emptied of anything but light. He cursed under his breath, and rolled out of his bedding. A blade came down, glinting faintly in the moonlight. His bedding slashed open, downy feathers tossed up in the air. Samuel gritted his teeth, the smell of the wielder’s fear curling in his nostrils. He stripped off the top of the silk sleeping clothes he wore, spreading it out beneath the window.

“Not here,” he hissed, and felt the chill run down his attacker’s spine. He dove out of the room’s simple, paneless window. He hit the ground rolling. He heard a loud thump behind him, his attacker hitting the floor. The crude guest hut shivered, bits of its thatching floating off into the night wind. Samuel smiled.

Samuel ran like a man possessed, heading for the trees. His bare feet pressed down into the cold peat— the ground met every step with a wet and cloying embrace. The trees here displeased him, rotten for climbing due to slick trunks and high canopies. They were still better than open space, where gunpowder would make a quick end to this fight.

As if in response to the thought, a sharp crack split the air. A ball came whizzing by harmlessly but close enough to hear. It took a wet chunk out of a tree–trunk ahead of Samuel. Thick white sap bubbled up to mourn the wound. The sight was familiar, and Samuel’s smile widened. He took a sharp turn left, and headed into darker jungle. It made an easier target of him— another crack sent a ball ringing true into his shoulder. He grimaced, but kept running. The smell of blood only heightened his senses, the pain sharpened his eye.

He skidded to a stop where three trunks crossed, one sagging under the weight of the other two. Wet vines trembled in the wind, as if begging him to see where a shot would land. His smile turned to a toothy grin, as he crouched before the great trees. He placed a hand to his shoulder, and squeezed precisely. The ball fell out of his shoulder, and spilled onto the ground. He let it bleed, let it wash every trace of the rotten jungle from the wound. Then he sealed it with a touch, and turned his eye back into the night.

“Here,” he hissed.

Part Three

Blood Of A Stranger

Samuel sank to a crouch between the shadows of the trees. His eyes searched the night, their ice blue washed almost white by the moonlight. Their pallor was only made more striking by the stark black hair drifting past them. The wind picked up— another shot rang out. Samuel sank slightly further towards the ground, and listened for the ricochet. He stretched out a hand, and caught a piece of rotten tree bark. He sniffed it lightly.

“How terrified you are, little monkey,” he purred. He glanced back at the groove in the tree. It as well as pinpointed the shooter to Samuel. Without looking, the angel scooped up a stone. He dove forward, and a shot whizzed harmlessly behind him. He could smell the gunpowder now, a hot familiar smell that called to old wounds. It stirred his blood, sharpened his senses. He stood, backing up with his hands in the air. He listened for the frantic scraping of the shooter struggling with the gun. There it was— the curious sound of sears passing horizontally through a battery and pan cover together. The man was struggling to cock a flintlock— a sound he knew well enough by now.

“A patilla,” he said, louder now, “Spanish, then? I don’t hear a spring on the outside— it’s not a French lock. Now that’s a sound I won’t forget.” He kept his back to the shooter. The scraping became more frantic now, less coordinated. “If the French sent you to do their work, they should have sent you with their guns.”

Samuel stopped in place. He palmed the stone, rubbing it in his fingers. “You’ve never done this before, have you. Careful now. Those locks are sensitive— they’ll go off on their own if you treat them so rudely.”

The shooter was breathing hard now. Under his breath, a muttered prayer. Samuel’s smile faded. He gripped the stone, waiting. He slid one foot ahead of the other. The man squeezed the trigger. Samuel spun, taking the shot square to the meat of his shoulder. It plunged in and out cleanly. A fine mist of Samuel’s blood filled the air, a crimson stream ran down his left arm. The other was already in motion. Samuel whipped the stone at his attacker. A satisfying scream split the air. Samuel stood, and clenched his left fist. The wound on his shoulder closed, the blood boiling off his alabaster skin.

The wind picked up. Samuel’s silken sleeping trousers fluttered like flags. They sounded almost like little birds’ wings. They were white, but his bare chest and arms were paler, almost glowing amidst the dark jungle. He stood over the shooter now. The man was poor, half–starved, and bleeding from a cut above his eye. A piece of shattered powder–horn had lodged there— bits of horn and powder lay scattered around his fallen form. The man had curled into an almost fetal position, not even bothering to retrieve the now–useless pistol. His ragged beard glistened with tears, caught like dewdrops in the bedraggled fur. He could not even look at the man standing above him, could not meet those cold, pale eyes.

Samuel looked down on the man with pity. He kicked the gun into the darkness, and then took a step back.

“Tell me your name,” he whispered, “and I shall send you home to your fathers.”

The only response came in tears, and desperate prayers.

“I have seen this two ways,” Samuel said, sinking again to a crouch, balanced on his toes. “In one, you give me your name, and in the moment of truth I am able to forgive you. In another, you refuse my help, and at the moment of your death you are crushed by the revelation.” He closed his eyes, settling his hands on his knees. “When the birds cry, the decision will be made either way. Quickly now— reach for Heaven while you feel it near.”

The man exploded into a last, desperate attack. Clutching a crude knife, he scrambled toward Samuel. Without opening his eyes, Samuel caught the man’s wrist, and broke it with an effortless twist. The would–be killer grappled with the angel, trying to wrestle the other man to the ground. Samuel’s balance seemed unshakeable, though he remained in his odd perch. The wind seemed to stir again, to twist and whisper. It kicked up that dark cascade of hair, it tossed the attacker’s trapped tears like spray into the air. Samuel opened his eyes.

The would–be killer struggled for air— his breath stolen by a horror that gripped his very soul. Samuel’s eyes had emptied. The air itself seemed to darken around the angel’s face, those eyes were so bright. They spilled ice blue light into the night, lit both combatants in an unearthly glow. “Diablo!” he screamed, the first intelligible word Samuel had gotten from him. He forced his legs up between them, planting them firmly on Samuel’s slender chest. He tried to force Samuel away. Samuel’s grip was iron, keeping the man helpless in the angel’s embrace.

The trees themselves began to groan with the force of the wind kicked up beneath them.

“Hurry now,” Samuel whispered. “Save your soul.”

The man screamed as though the devil himself had hold of his throat. He tore himself away. He began to run away from the angel, toward those curiously half–felled trees. His legs felt heavy, he slowed. The supporting tree shivered as he approached. A splintering crack split the night. Sleeping kites stirred as the supporting tree sagged. The tiny raptors took to the air, shrieking away from sagging boughs. The man stared at them, and then looked back to the crouching angel.

Everything seemed colder. Samuel stood slowly. The attacker sagged, falling to his knees. He blinked, suddenly tired, and very confused. He fell to his knees, his head lolling forward. His pants were wet, and strangely dark. He put a hand to his thigh, and it came back warmer, sticky. He blinked. It was soaked in blood. Blood was everywhere, pooling around his knees, around his feet. He looked at Samuel in wordless confusion. Samuel showed him the crude knife, stained brightly in its owner’s aterial spray. Sameul’s white silk was spattered, bright red spots still soaking into the glossy fabric.

“Such a small cut,” the man croaked, his voice failing him, “I never felt it.”

The wind seemed to have stopped, this far from Samuel, yet around the angel, those currents still whipped. The man tried to focus his eyes, squinting into the darkness. The night seemed to get darker and darker still, despite the light from the angel’s eyes. The man gasped. He realized at last what was stirring the air— his eyes at last found the outlines of night–black wings. They were massive, darker than black at their deepest feathers, with a deep blue sheen at their tips and edges.

“Mother of God,” he choked. He started to say something else. He had no breath left to speak— he could find no voice. He fell forward, face–first into the mud. His soul rose briefly, then twisted away from the light of those emptied eyes. It sank into the earth and away from Samuel’s sight.

Samuel’s wings stretched out, then folded gently behind him. He shook his head.

“Such a waste,” he sighed. “Whatever you were paid, it couldn’t have been enough.”

Part Four

A Very Thin Veneer

The faces around him were tight and drawn. Samuel took little notice of their discomfort. He tugged at the lace bunched around his throat, and eased into his customary seat at breakfast. The tension was palpable, the silence nearly unbearable. The first breezes of morning made the light curtains flutter, carrying the thick scent of flowers and river plants into the mansion’s dining room. Samuel arranged his cutlery with delicate, pale fingers, and settled back into the chair.

“You look well,” Don Majin Meñez broke the silence. His words were polite, but his features were an expressionless mask. “You have the look of someone who sleeps soundly.”

“With a few interruptions,” Samuel replied breezily. The servants set out their breakfast, giving the room’s tension a welcome break. “I regret I must inform you,” he continued, eyeing the food hungrily, “Your lovely plantation has once again become the target of wanton aggression.”

“How unfortunate,” the Don returned, stiffly addressing his own food. “But it is to be expected. As the Compaña Guizpocoana de Caracas becomes unreasonable, the families who grow cacao fear for their futures. With French–imposed nobility in Spain treating us as supplemental and disposable, the people are not too far from another revolt.” He paused to sip at his wine, and closed his eyes. “You are quite well known along this river, my lord. With French nobility under our roof, the other families likely mistake us for agents of Caracas’ future.”

“So,” Samuel replied, icily. “They send frightened mestizos, you think, to shoot those agents in their sleep?” He lifted his eyes, his pale gaze pinning the Don’s eyes to him. “You should worry for your own safety, then. Killing your French liaison would only aggravate you, would it not?”

“I would imagine,” the Don retorted, struggling to maintain his calm, “They would expect us to learn a lesson from your end.”

“Are you known to be so easily swayed?” Samuel cocked an eyebrow. Though his tone was mild, the words were delivered with pointed grace, tiny barbs of accusation in every syllable. “Is it thought so likely that house Meñez can be housebroken by a murder or two?”

“I cannot bear such talk at breakfast,” the Don’s wife spoke softly, her eyes averted from them both.

“It is all academic anyhow,” the Don smiled. “No doubt you dealt with your intruder—”

“Oh indeed,” Samuel paused to sip his wine, “Someone will need to find him, in fact, before the day’s heat brings him to ruin.” The Don’s wife looked ashen, and she abandoned all attempts toward her food.

“— and we should all be grateful to you for a safe night’s sleep.” The Don’s polite veneer warmed over his features, and brought faint cheer back to the family table.

Samuel seized one of the salted fish from a passing platter, and began to devour it. It tasted like heaven, after a night of so much blood and healing. The salt hit his system, and he felt as though he had come alive again. He got a hint of rosy colour back in his skin, and his mood improved. He smiled back at the Don at last. “No doubt,” he said mildly, examining the fruit placed before him. “As grateful as I am for the courtesy you’ve shown me since my arrival.”

“Not at all,” the Don’s wife piped up. “It is only right, that we should provide for your shelter as well as we can. All you have done for us—” She trailed off. There would be no talk of money, not today. Not here. Not between Samuel and the Don. The plantation was suffering from fixed prices and forced deals. Samuel’s French gold had likely set this table, paid the servants to attend it. The gratitude of émigré nobilitie had been generous, and their attempts to woo him back to the fight were vigorous. As long as the gold lasted, he would be an honoured guest.

“No matter,” Samuel stood. He grabbed two more fish, and thanked the servant under his breath. “I should count myself grateful for the exercise,” he grinned. “It does wonders for my health.” He nodded to the Don’s wife as he stood away from the table, ignoring everyone else in the room. “So would some morning air,” his grin faded to a slow, lilting smile. “If I may take my leave.”

She did not meet his eyes, keeping hers fixed on her plate. She slipped her hands below the table as he passed close to her, to hide their trembling. He could feel the flush on her skin, smell her perfume as he passed. He met eyes with the Don once more, and savoured the fury glittering in the older man’s eyes. That polite smile and good humour couldn’t mask the Don’s feelings completely. Both men knew the frustration, the impotent anger locked behind it. He strolled out into the sunlight.

The air was warm and heavy, smelling thickly of river weeds. He turned away from the breeze, seeking instead the cool shade of cacao trees. He hated the river— he thought it fetid and dark. He avoided it at all costs. The disappointment he felt looking into its murky water made him homesick for the rivers of his long–abandoned home. He loved the broad branches of the cacao trees— they had been entirely new to him. Their boughs were spread above a heavy load of yellow–green pods, that had grown from thick green teardrops along the branches. A few were turning red, begging to be picked from their leafy shelters. Samuel stepped carefully, mindful of pods that had already dropped and broken. He sought out a certain spot, along the pickers’ footpaths. He stopped, and closed his eyes. The wind stirred, blowing strands of dark hair out of his coiffure.

“He stands before the battlefield in moments of peace,” he whispered, the invocation so soft it was nearly breathless, “and sees each blow as it shall land—”

He opened his eyes slowly, looking out on a patch of well–paced ground. The longer he stared at it, the more the images began to form before his eyes. At last, he could hear voices, low mutters. He saw the Don pacing, back and forth, his guard captain Nuñez standing uncomfortably in the mid–day heat.

“Miserable French dog!” The Don spat. “He is no Lord! He is no better than you, a guard! He sits at my table and smiles at my wife, as though he had any place there, any right to speak among us! He dangles his blood money before us, like, like—” He clenched his teeth. He spun to face Nuñez, to yell directly into the guard’s face. “What are you playing at, sending mongrels and frightened villagers! In all of this miserable swamp, is there no one with the mettle to end this insult?”

“Sir, the—”

The picture began to waver. Samuel cocked his head, confused and frustrated. The scene began to shift. He tried closing his eyes again, and took another bite of salted fish. He chewed slowly, trying to muster his concentration. He called his night–black wings forth, and spread them against the humid air. He took a deep breath, and opened his eyes.

The world had turned from day to night. The sound of struggle in the distance, then a crashing of splintered wood. The groan of a felled tree. He saw himself emerging from the cacao, bloodied and weary. The Samuel he saw gathered himself and waited. A flash of tawny wings, a searing blue light from the darkness. He closed his wings around himself reflexively. This ended the vision abruptly.

Samuel gasped, pain echoing in his body from the wounds on his imagined self. Those wings— their sandy colour brought back memories of agony, of brief and violent clashes between brothers. He stiffened, gripped by a chill the jungle’s heat could not dispel.

“It’s coming,” he whispered. “Death itself.”

He took another bite of fish, and followed the flight of his envisioned self back to its source. He had to find a place where the battle went better for him— a moment he could seize, a way to turn the battle his way. Every vision that met him made his blood run colder. The foe approaching him was stronger, more devastating, and more experienced than he.

He stopped. He smiled. Jumbled visions crossed his mind’s eye, and stirred his heart.

He could win.

Part Five

A Thorn In His Side

The boat stopped suddenly, shoving its passengers forward. The force woke the angel sharply. He opened his eyes. They were bright, teal blue, even in the fading light of evening they seemed to shine. The old man grinned, and spat a wad of used–up coca leaves into the water.

“The river weed,” he murmured. “It is too thick here for us to pass.”

The boatman ignored them both, unwrapping his machete in grim silence. The angel watched with mild interest, at the curious way the man held the blade. The boatman gripped it lightly between thumb and forefinger, and let the blade swing in a wide arc. It sliced this way through the soft, fleshy weeds stretched across the river. Each slice thinned the sickly green bundle across the bow.

“Surely you will speak to me now, my friend!” The old man pressed another coca leaf to his gums, eyeing the angel. “God sends us a sign to block the way ahead, and make you consider his promise.”

“God has done no such thing,” the angel snapped. “It is a water plant grown out of control, and nothing more. Put it anywhere, promises or no, and it will do the same.” He grimaced. His mouth felt coated in the rotten stench of jungle heat. He sucked what he could of it from the back of his throat and spit into the foul river. “God needs no help from unruly weeds.”

“But it did so here, in our path, and lay for just the moment—”

The angel cut him off. “You make no case with me by speaking so in Father’s name. Men have always usurped the natural world by blaming its happenstance on Heaven’s graces. It is a source of great bitterness for me. Why should God have need for signs and portents if he intended to impose a plan? If God wished to tell me something it would be written before my eyes. I would have no need for you to explain it to me.”

“Ah, but it IS written!” the old man’s face brightened. His smile pushed his wizened face into leathery ripples, bunched around his cheeks and eyes. He fished inside his dirty poncho, thumbing at tiny pockets sewn into its lining. “Here in way of memory given us by the Children of the Sun!” He pulled a loop of knotted string from the poncho, and rattled it in the air. “Each color, each knot significant. Together they form a promise, my friend. They promise me I will find you!”

“What is that supposed to mean to me?” the angel scoffed, “For all I know it’s an ancient accounts ledger. It isn’t a language, after all. It’s simply a means of reminder.” He turned his eyes away, and watched the weeds float downriver. Tiny slips of catfish, almost translucent, faded in and out of sight in the murk. It was more than muddy, this thick tan soup of a river— there were fat chunks of vegetation, bits of flesh that smelled of violent death. It was a river full of vampiric creatures, parasites, ambush predators. Everywhere his spirit stretched into this jungle there were signs of life draining away in increments, creatures struggling not to show weakness for fear of being dragged into the dark. It clung to him, it pulled him in all directions.

“Hold it in your hand,” the old man smiled. “Perhaps it will speak to you.” He dangled it, shaking it again. “You are not afraid of it, are you?”

The angel was in no mood for the man’s taunting. He reached out to accept the knots, to put an end to the discussion. The old man dropped the knots into the boat, and seized the angel by the wrist. He pulled himself closer. With a crude knife in his outstretched hand, he seemed to lunge at the angel’s throat. The old man let go of the angel’s wrist and reached for him, as though to seize a better hold on his uniform. A flash of something dark caught the corner of the angel’s eye. Something in the hand that had been holding the knots, something cradled in the palm. He ignored the knife, let it come to his throat unresisted. Instead he seized the other wrist with both hands, and shoved the old man’s hand into view between them.

They froze in place, the knife at the angel’s throat. The angel forced the man’s frail hand palm–up. A long, wicked thorn rested in the palm. The angel wrested it from him, then shoved the old man away. At its end was fashioned a crude clay head, a demon’s face etched in with careful hand. A few strands of pale blonde hair were woven around it, mingled with wiry gray. It felt faintly warm to him, the distant glow of superstitious faith. He eyed it skeptically, trying to connect it with its purpose. Whatever that purpose was, it was too weakly impressed upon the object for the angel to perceive.

“Forgive me!” the old man yelped. He stretched out his hands in supplication, and lowered himself as far as he could within the vessel. “I would have done no harm to you! I only wanted to make you listen!”

“By planting this?” the angel scoffed. He sniffed the little talisman. “Not poisoned in any way I can tell. Some sort of sorcery then? You really think I fear so much for my life on this earth that I would do your bidding?”

“I am a fool,” the old man said, scrambling to lower himself even further.

“Yes, you are,” the angel growled. “And I do not suffer fools. Touch me again and I will feed you to the river.” He flung the thorn into the river, it floated into the weeds. “Perhaps your screams will drown out the sense of it, and quiet my thoughts for a time.” He bent low, to scoop up the knotted string. “I don’t know what poor spirit you met that actually fell for—”

The angel stopped. His eyes widened. Between his fingers, the string had stung him. He dropped it, examining the skin for cuts, for punctures. The touch continued to sting, spreading through his hand. He picked the string up again, and this time braced for the sensation. The longer he held the object, the stronger the burning became. The pain coalesced somewhere behind his thoughts, burned itself into a clear impression. Subjugation. Not simply a demand from the talisman, but the touch of virtue itself.

“Where did you get this?” he demanded through gritted teeth. “Who made this for you?”

“It was fashioned for me by the Old Gods!” The old man straightened, his supplication quickly giving way to satisfaction. “I descend from the servants of Sun–Kings, and—”

“Liar!” The angel roared. The boatman pulled his machete close, trying to curl as small as he could into the prow of the boat. The old man looked confused, disappointed. The angel stood, rocking the boat dangerously as he did so. His eyes blazed, their unnatural glimmer far too bright for the waning twilight. He stepped forward, planting a well–polished boot against the old man’s chest. He bore the old man down to the bottom of the boat, staring down dispassionately.

“It was sold to me! By a fellow magician! After we cooked the blood and ate—” The pressure of the angel’s boot stopped his breath, made him gasp.

“Liar.” He rubbed the knots between his fingers. His savage, beautiful eyes drifted closed. The air picked up around him, pulled sweaty pale–blonde hair out of the clumps against his forehead. Something glowed there, above his eyes a sort of symbol— too briefly visible to be seen clearly. The angel’s thoughts calmed, as he embraced the savage drive the knots imposed. Beneath the skin it called to him, drew out something old in him. It spoke to him in images, brief flashes of where it had been. He opened his eyes, furious.

“You took it from a corpse,” the angel growled. “The corpse of a human being, servant to the object’s creator.”

“Yes!” the old man croaked. He tried to say more, but the boot pressed harder, and again silenced him.

“The first time you used it, you were surprised at its influence,” the angel seethed. “You imagined yourself a sorcerer then, because you had fashioned for yourself an unsuspecting slave. It warms when we are near, and this is how you know who will fall prey to you.” He let up on the man’s chest, and settled down into the boat. This time he did not sit, did not fold ungainly in the center of the vessel. Rather he perched, lightly on his toes, balanced like a bird there. His eyes drifted closed again. He pointed to the old man without opening them.

“Speak again,” the angel intoned, “and I rip your tongue out by its roots.”

The old man gasped, rubbing his chest. He tried to scramble behind the boatman, who brandished the machete to deter him. It worked. They both edged as close to their respective edges of the boat as they dared, with the river seething below them. As dangerous as the water was in the daylight, they truly feared it at night. Pinned between this unearthly man and the river, they waited to die.

“I should,” the angel said finally, the answer to the boatman’s unspoken question. “I should slit your throat as you intended to slit mine.” He bit his lip, contemplative. “Your deaths are nothing to me. It is your eventual fate no matter what I do.”

The boatman began to weep, clutching the machete closer to his chest as though it were more a talisman than the religious icons at his throat. The angel opened his eyes, their light fading.

“This bounty he would use me to collect,” the angel murmured. “Tell me everything you know.”

Part Six

Rage of Angels

“The Devil, sir,” the boatman stammered. He struggled to speak, easing only when the angel settled back into the center of the boat. “Long has he roamed this river,” the boatman explained haltingly, “and the shamans kept him at bay there. But the corruption hanging the cacao farms has freed him, and gives him refuge from the old magics.”

“Spare me the superstition,” the angel scoffed. “Tell me what has actually been seen and heard.”

“A man pale as a corpse, who does not burn in the sun. A man who kills ruthlessly, quietly, so the dying have no time to scream. He has killed no fewer than ten men from the village nearby, and more who come from further away to drive him from the farms. It is said that he has made slaves of the Don’s family, that he has stolen their souls. The Don offers gold to the man who can drive this devil away.”

The angel seemed to sink into his thoughts, his severe features almost meditative. His thin face seemed drawn by some internal effort, as he listened to the man’s story. “And this degenerate travelling with you,” he said tightly, “He sends his slaves against this man?”

“Every one,” the boatman said quickly. “He brings them to the banks of the river, and then in three nights’ time comes for them again. They never return.”

The angel relaxed. Frustrated, he snapped, “But you, yourself, have never had the courage to so much as lay eyes on this man.”

“He is the devil!” the boatman protested. “It is said he has eyes of ice! To look into them is to surrender to evil!”

The angel ignored him. There was nothing to draw from the man but warmed–over tales, not a touch of heaven he could use to identify the ‘devil’ these people feared. Silence settled over the boat, oppressive and stifling.

“Cut us free,” the angel said at last, “Take me to the place he intended me to go.”

“And in three nights’ time—”

“In three nights’ time you had best have followed this river as far from me as it will take you,” the angel bit each syllable viciously. “If I did not need to take care of this first, I would show you what I think of conspiring little monkeys at play with the lives of angels.”

The boatman hacked frantically at the weeds, one eye constantly cast back into the boat. The angel thumbed the atzoawi again, the little knots still burning his fingers. He had become accustomed to the sting, and it was almost pleasant to him by now. There was a kinship here, even in this angry little object. What, he wondered, had made Subjugation so furious as to create this little device and loose it upon the world? He let his fingers drift from string to string, looking for a pattern, any sense of language to the object. Perhaps even a mnemonic had some sort of syntax, some foothold to be—

He blinked at the object in his palm. In his attempt to understand it, he had rearranged it, and untangled its strands. Arranged so, he could see clearly what he had been missing all along. The colored string and tiny knots, laid flat as they had been formed, created a picture there— a set of glyphs that called to him. “In Father’s name, they seek to summon me,” it complained. “Let them see me completely.”

The angel closed his eyes and let the object’s story wash over him. From the mountains to the ceja, Subjugation held sway for generations. The Inca had embraced him, their god–kingdom built practically on the backs of his wings. They did not merely impose upon one another, they subjugated their entire lives, their identities, their sense of desire, sacrificing their selfish drives to the ideal between them. Only their souls remained their own, brilliant and untamed. The rest of their lives were determined from the moment of birth. The angel visited them from time to time— they feasted him, celebrated his presence, showered him with irreplaceable artwork and every delicacy they could devise. For generation after generation they pleased him, and he granted them his virtue.

Then illness struck the god–kings, and their sons rejected their angel. Rather than subjugate themselves to the demands of the empire, they fought amongst themselves. They fought like dogs over scraps, heedless of what their out–of–control squabbling might do to the lands they held, the loyalties they were charged to keep. Subjugation abandoned them, and their vast lands became unruly. Outsiders preyed on their weakened cities, brought plagues and persecution to their people. In swept a people who would enslave even the soul, oppress it with ideas of original sin and worse, profane the angelic host by placing it in envious service to mankind. Their angel’s attention had long wandered from the western world, preferring the peaceful gardens of the south Pacific and Asiatic regions. The new faiths infuriated him, especially as he felt they profaned him personally. Their domination never admitted to being domination. Instead it pretended to be service. It was a slap in the face, a greater insult that rallied him back to the defense of his destroyed people.

The atzoawi had been given to remnants of the sun–kingdom’s lineage. Sons of the faithful. They were charged with bringing honest subjugation back into his world, ruthless and uncompromising.

The angel let his concentration on the object drop, closing his eyes. It was far too late, he mused, for such an attempt. The new faiths were slave–religions, and slave–religions were used to dealing with dominant forces. He sighed, and closed his eyes. The young ones, he thought. Would they ever learn? He tried to picture the angel behind the object. He caught sight of feathers, peculiar dark wings flecked with what looked like gold at their tips, and edged with blue at their roots. That, at least, was a clue— dark wings were rare amongst the angelic host. They meant the angel was undiminished by the darkness, that its glory embraced the shadow as well as the light. The rest of the angel was altered by some sort of costume, no doubt a depiction that would make him familiar to his servants.

The boat jostled, floating free at last. The angel tucked the atzoawi back into his pocket.

The worst part was that he sympathized. He could understand the anger more than anyone, the way the same faiths profaned Acceptance. Ministers made it a blanket dictum on one hand, and rejected it completely on the other. Accept everyone, they said, except the people who don’t conform. There were times when he wanted to fight that message, too.

Well. He would accept this situation, at any rate. He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Either he would stop the marauding virtue, or someone from Michael’s army would. At least he would have the wisdom to attempt to reach out to this angel rather than simply destroy it. The bitterness of Michael’s zealots would certainly prevent that.

He settled back, tired to his very bones. He let his spirit recede, back beneath his thoughts, like a thin song fading under the rush of running water. Exhaustion set in swiftly once the angel faded from him, and again he was a gangly, uncomfortable English soldier drifting far from home. The heat hit him in waves, pushed him down, down, further beneath his skin. He gave the old man one last, icy look— then let his eyes drift closed. The angel’s thoughts dissipated like smoke, scattering before the complaints of aching muscles and groaning joints. He sank away from the world, and into a dreamless sleep.

Part Seven

Under Cover Of Darkness

There was barely any light here, among the cacao trees. The pale morning barely reached here, where the trees were tucked into the shade of the forest beyond. White patches of fungus on long black trunks, half–obscured by moss, gave them the appearance of courtly old gentlemen. As she drifted between them, Señora Meñez could almost imagine such gentlefolk, bent in various poses of polite deference around her. She found herself nodding to them slightly, smiling a little past the edge of her fine silk umbrella. Fat drips hit it from time to time, forming a sort of rhythm to which she walked. She closed her eyes, and let out a soft breath. She took a well–turned step, her skirts swishing gently around her ankles. She extended her hand, as though in reserved greeting.

Someone took that hand, and dropped a polite kiss on its delicate knuckles. The Don’s wife gasped— her eyes flew wide. She pulled her hand back as though stung.

Samuel straightened, a smile haunting his pale lips. His eyes seemed to dance as they took in her offense, returning only gentle amusement.

“How dare you—” she choked on the words.

“Forgive me,” Samuel bowed stiffly, then extended his hand to demonstrate. “A hand extended so begs acceptance. How sad for the world, if it found none.” He locked eyes with her, stepping a bit closer. “What a precedent it sets for hands of lower quality.”

“You misunderstood,” the Don’s wife turned her shoulder to him, forcing herself to look up into the trees. “For my part, I was lost in memory. We shall forget—”

Samuel stood beside her now, looking as she did, up into the trees. “Shall you?” he interrupted. “Shall you really forget so easily?”

“Señor, I have taken great pains to treat you politely. You delight in tormenting my husband, and our situation has put us at your mercy. Please, do not further strain my good nature by treating me so frivolously.” She swallowed the last word hard, blinking a little more quickly than she intended.

“It is as it was the day I arrived,” Samuel whispered without looking her way. “Say the word, and I disappear without delay.” He dropped his voice even further, forcing her to turn, to watch his face. “There is nothing frivolous about what I do.”

“No, there isn’t, is there,” she breathed. She flushed, her brows knitting in sudden resentment. “Everything you do is deliberate, always so calculated. What is it you want, that you plot and scheme so?”

Samuel turned, cupping her cheek before she could pull away. “Memory brings the roses back to your cheeks, Señora. It breathes life back into you, bends you back towards the sun.” He dropped his hand, and stepped away, looking back into the canopy above. He lifted a slender finger, pointing briefly up into the distant treetops. “Can you even find it anymore, the light of day?”

“It is early,” the Señora stammered. “The sun is barely in the sky.”

“Everything here flourishes in the dark— these trees bear no pods if they are planted too far from the canopy’s reach. Everything here hides, seeks to be concealed and invisible. From the creatures to the plants, and further down the chains of life than there are words to describe, it is a den of skulking parasites.” Samuel smiled slowly, dropping his eyes to her again. “It is a perfect fit for the Don, who smiles and creeps into my shadow, his fingers for my wallet and his blade for my back.”

“Sir, you—”

“But it’s no fit for you, is it?” Samuel continued as though she hadn’t spoken. All humour faded from his expression now, and he faced her fully. He took the umbrella from her and tucked it into the crook of his elbow, taking her hands in his. “He plucked you from a sunny place, where you blossomed and flourished. A place to which you should return.”

She trembled, her lip quivering. She pulled her hands away from him, and slapped him, hard. She turned her back to him. Drips from the canopy fell on her cheeks, on her hair. Samuel stepped up behind her, and held the umbrella over her. He curled an arm around her, offering the umbrella back to her. She froze. He stepped in closer, curled his arm tighter. He put his other hand on her shoulder, and in this half–embrace, he stood behind her.

“Go home, Margarita,” he breathed. “Go home to your garden.”

“I can’t!” her voice broke, and she swallowed past a lump in her throat. She blinked back tears. “You shouldn’t make me think about these things!” Her voice was high and tight, like a little girl’s. “It’s cruel, it’s so unfair!” She wrung her pale hands at her waist, trying to regain her composure— the words spilled out of her, as though some great dam inside had been felled. A flood sprung from behind it. “What fun it must be for you, free as you are, to poke at a bird in a cage and tell it to fly away!”

She began to sway a little, the weight of her misery shaking her. “This is my home, but you poison it for me! You put longing in my heart and resentment in my mind!” Her tears stung her eyes, rolled down her cheeks. She struggled to wipe them away, to no avail. “I wish you had never come here! I wish you had never been born!” She sagged against him, until he was practically holding her up. She sobbed into her hands, small stifled sounds lest anyone discover them here.

He shifted her weight from the arm that held the umbrella to the other. “Listen to me, Señora. The riches your husband craves so dearly, they are nothing to me. Day after day he searches my quarters in vain. He cannot find the gold because it is already in your possession.” She tried to twist to look at him, but he gripped her more tightly, and kept her back to him. “Tonight something will happen to me, this much is certain. Whether I win or lose the day, I will be too weakened to defend myself from him— it is as clear as sign to me as any that it is time to move on from here. I have kept enough for that. The rest is in the bottom of your blanket chest.”

“But, why—”

“There is but one loyal man on this entire plantation,” Samuel continued. As he spoke, his voice picked up a strange timbre. It warmed her all over, sent shivers down her spine. She could do nothing but listen, every word more compelling than the last. “One who is sick of the blood on the Don’s hands and who would do anything to see you safely from this place. You will know him by his kindness— and when he asks you why you weep, you must tell him all that weighs on your heart. Only with your complete trust will he risk his life against the chance the Don is testing him.” He eased his grip on her, his voice warm with unearthly compassion. “I have seen it. It is the only path that unfolds well for you.”

“What are you?” she breathed.

“Only a messenger,” Samuel pressed the umbrella back into her hand, and stepped back. “A reminder that light reaches even the darkest place.”

The Don’s wife blinked, little droplets still leaving sparkles on her thick lashes. “A messenger,” she echoed. She hugged the umbrella handle close to her. She tried to speak, to ask a question, but all that came out were more tears. “Wait!” she cried, “I don’t want you to go!” She spun to face him, but he was gone.

Nuñez froze— he had been walking at the edge of the trees, part of his morning patrol. He had missed Samuel by moments, and seen only the Don’s wife there in the orchard. He’d tried to slip away unnoticed, so as not to let her know he’d seen her crying. He did not look up at her. “I will stay if it pleases you,” he said stiffly.

“Dear Captain,” she said softly. “I must look so frightful right now.”

“There is nothing frightening about you,” he said, still keeping his eyes averted. “But… if there is anything wrong— let me know, my lady, and I will set it right.”

“Everything is wrong,” she let the umbrella drop, and sobbed into her hands again, unable to hold back the tears. “Simply everything.”

Nuñez’s awkwardness fell away. He ran up to her, as though he could somehow tend the wounds that pained her. She sank to her knees, her skirts pressed into the mud, and sobbed. He sank to his knees there before her— acting before thinking, he put his hands on her delicate shoulders.

“Tell me,” he asked her, his eyes searching for hers, “What is it that makes you cry?”

Part Eight

Something Personal

The early morning drew a thick mist from the river, cool and cloying. As thick as it was, the banks of the river were not visible until the boat had almost run upon one. The boatman could not have been happier than he was, to see the river turning north. He grabbed a mouldering pole from the bottom of the boat, and shoved it roughly into the river bottom. The boat jostled, coasting towards the shore. It scraped roughly against the western bank, against stiff roots exposed by summer floods now long forgotten.

The angel opened his eyes. He stood in the still–rocking boat. He moved smoothly despite the boat’s pitching. This preternatural balance seemed to strengthen by the moment— the angel swayed less with the boat’s movement the more the pupils of his eyes narrowed, until the boatman could see no darkness in them, only that bright blue. The angel stepped smoothly onto the bank.

“Disappear,” the angel commanded, without looking back. There was no anger in that voice, but the boatman needed no persuasion. The boatman pushed away from the bank as eagerly as he had pushed towards it. He begged the mist to close around him, to blot out the memory of that creature forever. He kissed the crucifix at his neck and laid it back in his poncho, tucked behind the huacas pinned near his heart, and next to the golden disc where Inti stood to guard him. He did not care which icon had seen him through the night. He thanked them all.

The angel drew a soft breath in, scenting the air. He could taste blood in the mist, the whisper of recent death. A death in fear. He closed his eyes, trying to draw more from the air around him. He sighed in frustration, his senses overwhelmed—

“Still sick from the river,” someone chuckled, in a voice like snapping twigs and dry crumbling leaves. “It has a way of besting men like you.”

The angel opened his eyes, his brows knitting in elegant annoyance. The old man saw those unnatural eyes— his own lifted in recognition.

“Ah. No man, then.” The old, deeply bronzed man hobbled stiffly towards the water, leaning heavily on a knotted walking stick. He shifted from awkward English into the blended mestizo tongue. “Forgive me. I am Santiago. I took you for another hunter, after the farm’s bounty.”

“You have no need of forgiveness,” the angel cocked his head, intrigued. “None at all.”

“You sound surprised,” Santiago wheezed, halfway between laughter and loss of breath.

“You have lived long, or lived exceedingly hard,” the angel remarked, his expression smooth and blank. “Most men acquire much to forgive in just such a way.”

“I have lived both long and hard,” the old man eased down onto the roots, sitting easily on their woody tangle as though they formed a seat. “But with few debts.”

“Had I the time,” the angel confessed, “I would like to learn more of someone who needs nothing from me.” He straightened, dusting a few stray leaves from his stiff uniform jacket. “Kindly tell me where I can find this farm. Though I will take no bounty from it, I do wish to deal with its distress.”

“There is the path of angels, worn by those who came before you,” Santiago pointed into the forest. The angel’s eyes fell upon a tiny carving in one of the tree–trunks. “But I warn you, they walked it only one way.”

“Is there a better path, then?” The angel sighted another carving, deeper in, and another. The trail was easy to see once pointed out, and he was growing impatient to proceed.

“You should trust the river,” Santiago murmured. “It is said the Devil you seek never walks its banks.”

“With good reason, my good man,” the angel said, stiffly. “It is filled with all manner of unpleasantness.”

“It is filled with life.” Santiago leaned over, and cupped a bit of murky water in his hand. A tiny creature, looking like little more than a worm, thrashed in his palm. “From the biggest predators to the tiniest little creatures, all fighting for the right to be alive.” He turned it over, exposing the tiny spines of a catfish no larger than his thumb. It sucked at his palm, its tiny mouth searching for flesh soft enough for its teeth to dig in. He tossed it back. “Nothing has more right to be here than the river,” he smiled. “It is said your Devil steals his place on the earth. Legend says that he steals the lives of men to maintain his own. Who could ask a better ally than the river when fighting something like that?”

“It is said the earth is flat,” the angel sighed, “It is said the sun chases the moon. It is said that one day, we will shake a third of the stars from the sky, and they will clatter down upon the ground.” He looked back at Santiago, his eyes weary. “Many things are said, few of them true.”

“Praised be the wisdom of Heaven,” Santiago bowed his head, wiping his hand off on his shirt. “But if I may ask you this— why would God’s own river bother his servant so?”

The question gave the angel pause. He let out a deep breath, and a bit of laughter tumbled out at the end. “Well I suppose it’s personal,” the angel mused. “The rivers reject me. There is not space and food enough for all. Rather than accept this and range out in search of better sustenance, or die out until their numbers ease, the creatures fall to feeding on one another and even themselves. They adapt to this purpose. It is a fine enough system, to be sure, but one built of rebellion. Everything which survives here does so out of sheer refusal to yield.”

“Well,” Santiago shrugged. “It is much prettier in the high–water season.”

“I’m sure it is,” the angel smiled. He set off down the path, never casting a glance back.

As he walked from marker to marker, the angel’s attention drifted. His body moved almost mechanically. He forgot it for the moment, sifting through bits and pieces brought to mind by the atzoawi, now safely tucked in his breast pocket. It always felt strange to have to try so hard, bringing back the memory of someone from beyond this world. Somewhere beneath all the sifting fragments, he still felt the faint echoes of connection. Somewhere under the surface his spirit still keened to be reunited with every missing piece scattered away at the moment of creation. Now he used that. He followed that ache, trying to trace the outline of this missing virtue in his heart as though it were a phantom limb.

Black wings, leafed with gold at their tips. Those, he could remember. Blue shimmering roots, barely visible as the wings beat an arched threat against the air. Slowly the virtue began to take shape in his mind. He saw Subjugation, rushing in with the army of the First Brother, armor glittering in the light searing past the Gates. The armor of Subjugation was such a contrast to his own simple garb. How ornate the young could be, the angel mused. He saw himself, plated with a simple light metal, unadorned but for a few personal symbols. He cut a stark figure against a boiling, seething sky. In the memory, his wings spread, warm and bright, against storm–wracked heavens. The version of himself in the vision had never been touched by the thoughts and feelings of a living mind. The angel in the vision seemed stronger, brighter, clearer than he could feel now.

He shook his head, dispelling the vision like smoke. Memories of the Gate made him feel tired and alone here. He would figure out how to deal with this virtue in some other way.

Part Nine

A Most Pleasant Distraction

Under his breath, the angel cursed the cowardice of men. It was little wonder, he thought, that this trail had been marked. The boatman dropped his frustrated angels hours away from the plantation. The air felt heavy, thick as London fog, but hotter than any day he’d endured in this jungle. The soggy earth seemed to seep into his boots, or perhaps it was sweat that made them soggy. He would not stop to check. Human beings were built for walking, but marching had always been the most irritating part of a soldier’s life for the spirit within.

He couldn’t afford to recede, sink beneath the body’s consciousness and let it deal with all the tedium. His approach would be felt, that much was certain. The young always had the advantage in these situations. They could hide longer in the world of men. Whomever he was after would be ready for him when he arrived. He leaned on one of the trees, as though to catch his breath— he slipped his fingers against the bark and tried to find any traces of another spirit that had come through this way. There were faint impressions, fleeting glimpses of other Images marching to their fate.

A flutter of dark feathers rushed across his vision. It was too quick to follow, too brief to identify. The hand he rested on the tree curled into a fist— he thumped it hard against the trunk, frustrated.

Something wasn’t right. It didn’t fit his memory of this virtue, for it to hide. It should have been brash, declaring its territory. His brow knitted, his mind fishing for memory. The more he tried to catch them and examine them, the more deftly they flitted away from his conscious mind. Subjugation should have stepped forward to welcome the conflict by now, like any Marat. Didn’t they always?

“Who can understand the young,” he breathed. But even as he said it, he felt uncertain. Something was beginning to grip his heart, something dark and cold. Something about those dark feathers seemed more vivid, more genuine than the memories he pulled from the knots and strings. That presence felt too whole, too proud, to have spent its time dallying with human worshippers. If it was so proud, why did it hide itself so? What advantage did it gain?

He could figure this out. He tried to focus on what details he’d seen of the feathers. Their quality seemed different, but even more familiar somehow. With enough focus, he could identify them. He pushed away from the tree, rubbing the sweat from his face. Then he remembered the moss, and cursed vehemently beneath his breath. He pulled the simple cotton kerchief from his pocket and began cleaning bits off.

It wasn’t until he finished this that he realized people were approaching. They were almost upon him. A mismatched couple, despite their best efforts to hide themselves— two people dressed as mestizos, sneaking out into the wilds. But the locals knew this jungle better than he knew the pubs in Whitechapel, and these two were clearly struggling. They hadn’t seen him. The angel slipped behind the tree, and listened to them.

“Step carefully, my lady,” the man said. He had a military look about him. It made the crude poncho he wore hang about as convincingly as a ball gown on old King George. The lady was even more conspicuous. She moved with delicate poise that could come only from good breeding— a practiced grace that did not belong in plain cotton and uncertain terrain.

“Is it very much further?” She asked in continental Spanish. The perfect tones in her voice made his heart skip. He closed his eyes for a second, letting the feelings wash past him. He shuddered, awash in memories. He let out a long sigh, haunted by the last time he’d felt the singular pleasure, the comfort of a woman’s touch. The faint scent of her perfume reached his unnatural senses. She’d almost managed to wash it off, but it was still there, still soaked into that soft skin. Just a trace— but enough to stir his blood and drown his mind. Its subtlety made her seem shy, and conjured visions of her self–conscious blushing. He thumped the back of his head lightly on the massive tree trunk, fighting for concentration. He dug his nails into the rotted bark, trying to dispel her from his mind.

The angel growled softly at himself. The body was lonely, starved for companionship. It was far too easy to underestimate the power of that longing. He’d completely lost his train of thought, and been utterly unguarded for long enough to be ambushed. How powerful isolation could be, he thought— how well it attached itself to the loneliness of being trapped on this earth. Down here it became a force that brought low the mightiest spirit. It was one of many weaknesses he accepted as part of living these lives— but it still irritated him. Slowly he calmed, in body and mind. He let go of the tree, and drew in a deep breath. He brushed the moss from his hands, then out of his hair, too frustrated with himself to pay attention to their chatter.

Their voices faded into the background noise of the jungle, and the angel emerged from behind the tree. He continued along the marked path, more wary than ever. He would not let his thoughts wander, he decided, would not concern himself with trying to be prepared before the moment. A moment was all he needed— and that moment’s lapse served to remind him.

He’d been lucky, he thought. It could have distracted him from something important. It could have made him vulnerable.

It could have cost him his life.

Part Ten

The Worst Possible Timing

Samuel climbed, digging his fingers and toes into the soft moss. He breathed the forest in, its dark and murky scent soothing his jangled nerves. He jabbed his knife in above him, setting it carefully for a good hold. The sword buckled to his hip was trusty enough, but the knife was his pride and joy— a French dagger, payment for a man’s life. It would channel him well. He could feel it warming to him even as he climbed.

The moss and creeping vines made good footholds, and made for an easier climb. Not so bad, he thought, all this hidden life— good enough, at least, when he needed to hide.

The time for hiding was almost over, now.

There was no reaching the lower boughs of this tree— he used it instead to get within jumping distance of the servants’ bungalow. He landed lightly, following the motion down with one hand to absorb the force completely. He made no more noise than a falling simian, or rotten fruit from one of the parasite plants growing in the lower boughs. Certainly not enough to wake anyone accustomed to sleeping under these leafy giants.

There was only one he wanted to wake, here. Only one set of eyes he wanted to open. He closed his eyes, watching the scene unfold before him. Even now he was filled with doubt, with the urge to meet this foe. Normally he tried to speak to his would–be assassins before the fray began. This time, he could not. Every time the scene played out the same way— the instant they recognized one another, the violence began. Whoever controlled the situation was the victor— no margin for error, no room for compromise. Whomever this intruder was, as soon as Samuel recognized him the battle would begin. If it did so from far away, the intruder disappeared into unplanned movements and Samuel lost his trail.

His vision shimmered, shifted under the chaotic influences of choice and chance. Samuel knew too well that nothing he foresaw was unchangeable. He set his teeth and braced himself. This was his best chance. His only chance. His foe was close. The time had come. He cut an imposing figure, he knew, dressed entirely in black. He would all but disappear into the shadows when he needed to— but that was an added bonus to serving vanity’s demands.

He spread his arms, feeling the air around him begin to stir. His breathing slowed, steadying as he centered himself. The weight of his jacket put a familiar pressure across the back of his shoulders— he started from there, and tried to remember the rest. His back tingled, and tightened. He felt his chest rise, bearing up under an imagined weight. His back stretched, flexing phantom wings. He pictured them— jet black, but with a subtle blue shimmer. Their sheen made him ridiculously happy. He smiled despite himself. He pushed his shoulders back, and opened his eyes. His wings stretched up behind him, gathering their pinions inward along the motion. They were not fully acting upon the world, carefully balanced between the world of spirit and the world of men. They were translucent, insubstantial.

Samuel thrust his shoulders forward. The wings snapped wide, as though to beat the air. They made no sound, but sent a ripple through the world around him. Samuel felt it in his chest, an impact that stole his breath.

“Wake to me,” Samuel purred. “Whoever you are.”

The angel spilled into view, fighting to catch his breath. He gasped, and held his head. His eyes emptied completely, then filled with a searing light. Memory flooded him, an overwhelming blur of disconnected images. Death after death, bodies giving up his spirit under the spread of night–black wings. Something far older than he had prepared for, far more powerful than he had suspected. Something that had killed him before, and would again.

His body fought him. His spirit flooded up like blood to a wound, and panicked the flesh. He staggered, then fell to his knees again, almost directly beneath Samuel. The man he inhabited instinctively resisted this madness. His mind tried to force him back down, deny him, drown him in humanity.

Samuel’s eyes narrowed. The man below wore a uniform— an English soldier. As the Englishman fell, Samuel caught a flash of sandy–coloured wings. Recognition shot through Samuel, sparks of electric pain that made him grind his teeth. Death after death, each time more ridiculous than the last. He felt the pain of old wounds, each of them infuriating. He leapt down from the servant’s quarters, and was upon this angel before his victim could react. His knife found flesh, and bit deep. He bore the Englishman to the ground.

The angel beneath him twisted, letting the knife sink into his right shoulder unresisted. His right hand went limp. With his left, he lunged for Samuel’s face, trying to bring it into view. His eyes were still blank, confused. They widened, and fixed on the knife— the angel shuddered, awash in a less physical pain. Samuel drew the sword out of its scabbard with his left hand— the angel beneath him shoved hard, and forced him away. The tip of Samuel’s sword whipped across the Englishman’s throat, putting a nasty slice across it.

“You—” Samuel hissed. He drew his tongue along the sword–tip, and tasted the Englishman’s blood. He shuddered, drawing those bits of disconnected memory across his lips, absorbing them into his spirit. His eyes lit, as he pulled something from the chaos. He concentrated all the force he could behind his words, a deliberate invocation placed in the utterance: “There is a name for you. Makhvet. The Death.”

“A name,” the Makhvet choked. He put the hand that still worked to his throat, struggling to heal the wound. Something more than blood had spilled from it— something more essential had been taken from him. He felt cold, felt pangs of loss surging through his wounds. Samuel’s familiarity served only to further cloud his senses, and put him at greater disadvantage. The name he used was right, but wrong somehow. He staggered back— Samuel’s blade passed so close to his face that the air it stirred stung his eyes. All he could do was fall back, and accept the pattern of the younger angel’s attacks. He stepped into the pattern, dodging with such precision they might be mistaken for dancers. With each step the strain became greater, each strike slicing closer and closer to its target.

The angel couldn’t gather his thoughts. He couldn’t understand the strange quality of these wounds. He couldn’t keep this up forever. He wracked his thoughts. What could he do? He couldn’t fight the way he normally did, couldn’t turn those strikes back on his attacker— not without understanding them. He wasn’t sure how many of those wounds his spirit could bear. This conflict had become far more serious than he was ready for, far more threatening than protecting this body was worth.

He could feel the end of this fight rushing in, the closer Samuel drove him to the cacao grove. He could feel defeat approaching. He had to make a decision. He was running out of time.

Part Eleven

Unlife Crisis

Samuel drove the Makhvet backward, his teeth grinding audibly. His wings flared, so vividly evoked that they drove the air. The elder angel still had not found his balance— his steps were precarious, yet he kept his feet. Samuel’s grip tightened, bearing down hard on a sword–strike. The sword slipped easily beneath the Englishman’s rib. The Englishman let out a strangled cry. Samuel shuddered, bracing himself for the flow of spirit along the blade. The closer the elder angel got to the surface, the more intense those contacts became. Too much, and— he yanked the sword out roughly.

Samuel thrust his knife upward between them. He struck for the throat. The Englishman tried to sidestep, lost his footing, and tumbled into a pile of rotten cacao pods. He turned over to his knees, and tried to stand.

Barely a breath to act. Barely a moment to think. Samuel whipped both knife and sword around, pointing them both down to plunge into the angel’s back. He caught a whiff of lavender. He glimpsed flashes of pale colour in the corner of his eye, like caramel and sand. One of his visions hit him, and the urgency of its warning gripped his heart. His wrists flicked back. He threw himself aside to stop the strike. He rolled to his feet, and got a running start between of the nearby trees. Samuel put everything he had into one good jump. He got a foot high on one trunk, and used it to vault up into the other. He disappeared into the darkness.

Lightning struck somewhere high in the canopy, a mile or two away. The sky seemed to crack open, dumping torrential rain into the trees. The grove was partially sheltered from the rain, though not from the deafening noise of it. The elder angel gathered himself, peeling bits of broken pod from his uniform.

Brilliant tawny wings— they seemed to race from the tips inward to the shoulders, as though solidifying from the outside in. Easier, he thought, to draw his glory in from the world around than to try to call it out of a panicked monkey’s heart. The Makhvet yanked himself to his feet. His wings thrashed, as though clawing at the air. They flickered and faded— he nearly fell. He muttered a string of curses.

The angel’s living body was still fighting him. Something about the name the younger angel invoked interfered with him, strengthened the emotional panic that drove him down. Racing thoughts filled him with doubt, with denial that strangled his virtue and slowed his healing. The body had no existence without him, no life apart from him, but it was no less convinced he was an invader. The dream of an Englishman fought him for control— being forced beneath that panic was like drowning in that soup of a river. Lousy timing, he thought, for his living host to have an existential crisis right bloody now.

Samuel stepped lightly on the low branches. He moved with practiced ease. He settled directly above and behind the Makhvet, obscured by his night–black wings. His eyes were wide. His heart raced. He kept command of his breathing, forcing slow, silent breaths. Carefully, he wound the ends of a dirty hemp rope around his hands. His toes dug into the wet moss. His raven hair flattened under the rain’s onslaught, clinging to his face and shoulders. The water ran into his unblinking eyes— he was fixed on the figure below him. He paid attention to nothing else.

The Makhvet clutched his head, and staggered. After so many days of trying to draw memory to mind, now he was faced with an embarrassment of riches— too many memories for the mind to tolerate, too much history all at once. The torrent left nowhere for the Englishman’s psyche to hide. They were too vivid to be make–believe. They left him in pain too sharp for a daydream. The spirit that called out to him could not be denied. Before its shocking presence, his body felt vague and insubstantial. The trees seemed no more convincing than paste and fabric, the stars no more than pinholes in a tattered swatch of velvet. In his mind, those dark wings spread across all of them, and devastated their claim on reality.

The angel didn’t have time to do this right, couldn’t give his host room to adjust to the dichotomy of his existence. He faced the more pressing matter of a vicious little virtue trying to give his flesh some dichotomy of its own. His wool uniform dragged him down, heavy with rainwater. The Englishman backed up against a nearby tree, taking what cover it could offer. He stripped off the uniform jacket, and loosened his shirt–collar. Gently, he examined the deep cut to his chest. There were little bubbles forming in the blood around it— a terrible sign. He shut his eyes, and drew a deep breath. His features smoothed, his mind succumbing to his spirit’s call. The wound beneath his rib began to close. His head dropped forward, chin to his chest. He drew in a deep, careful breath.

Something dark and heavy dropped out of the tree. He felt bare feet strike his shoulders. The impact drove him down hard, forcing him to double over. He let out his breath— too late. His damaged lung struggled, then collapsed. Air rushed in around it, and seemed to crush it. He curled forward, his vision tunnelling. Dull pain filled his chest. With it came an awful pressure, as though his heart were being shoved aside. He coughed a spray of blood, and then he couldn’t breathe at all— his throat was closing. Dimly he realized there was something wrapped around his neck. He tried to lift his arms, but they felt heavy and far away.

Samuel put his knee into the Englishman’s back, setting it squarely between the roots of fading wings. He pushed the angel’s body forward as hard as he could. He hauled back on the rope until it cut into his hands.

“Die!” he yelled, nearly drowned out by the rainfall. “This body is broken, just yield!”

Part Twelve

More To Chew

The Englishman’s eyes grew dim. He could feel his heart, pushed far out of place. What a perfect expression, the angel within him thought. Now all that remained was to accept it. The beats grew soft, disorganized. The cord tightened around his neck. The Englishman slumped forward. The light went out of his eyes. His body grew cold, and still.

Samuel let out a breath he hadn’t meant to hold. He let go of the cord, his own body quaking. He stood, his wings tucking behind him for balance. He held a hand out, watched it shake. How close he’d come to striking the angel’s wings— too close! He pulled a kerchief from his pocket, eyes still on the Englishman’s broken form. Samuel cleaned the angel’s blood off his knife, and slid it back into its sheath. The power he took from his enemies demanded so much of him. Taking from the Makhvet‘s glory would have been far too much to bear. Even now, he was loathe to strike the head off the corpse. Such a strike would ensure it could not be recovered, but would cost him dearly.

The rain ended as soon as it had begun. The silence unsettled Samuel. He cleaned the sword, and slid it into place. The longer he stayed, the more uneasy he became. He hadn’t seen past the angel’s collapse. Beyond that, the scene had evaded him.

He pushed the Englishman’s body with a toe. It was still slightly warm. Still not dead. Bodies infused with spirit could linger for such a long time. It kept Samuel wary. Hiding within a corpse seemed out of character for the Makhvet. Samuel took a step away from him, and closed his eyes. Maybe with the added power, he could see further from here and reassure himself.

“He stands before the battlefield in moments of peace,” he whispered. He stretched out a hand, trying to extend his focus ahead of him, “and sees each blow as it shall land…”

Samuel’s eyes snapped open. There was nothing. Nothing to be seen at all. He had no domain for sight here, which meant— “No peace!” He whirled. He saw a frothy pool of blood, and the discarded rope. The Englishman’s body was gone. But not far, not in its condition! He drew both knife and sword, and sank into the dark border between grove and canopy.

“Can you speak, elder brother?” he called out. “Or have I ruined your voice?”

The grove lit, as though night had turned to day. Samuel launched himself back into the grove. The light streaked past him, missing him by moments. Bad, Samuel thought. Back in the domain of his first visions. Behind him, the tree he’d been using for cover splintered into pieces. The pieces shot past him. He wove between them without looking. He vaulted up into the trees, trying to change the scene. He lost his bearings, but kept running, leaping from branch to branch. The cacao trees groaned, their limbs cracking and collapsing behind him.

A flash of tawny white startled Samuel, and knocked him back. The limb beneath him splintered. He tumbled to the ground. Quickly, he rolled to a crouch, blades ready. The battered angel fell from the same tree, and struggled to stand. Sandy wings spread behind him, glowing warmly in the fading light. His chest looked sunken, lopsided. The wound under his rib had closed, but the angel still struggled for breath. His hand to his throat, the angel stared at Samuel balefully.

“I’m impressed,” Samuel soothed. “You’re even harder to kill than I remembered. I didn’t even feel you healing.”

The angel opened his mouth to speak, but the sound was an angry rattle— a croaking shadow of his golden voice. “Who are you?” he demanded, “You are familiar to me.”

“As are you to me,” Samuel’s voice grew icy. “I have but a little memory— enough to know one who comes to end me. If you want my name, trade it for yours!”

The angel bared his teeth, and gritted them. He flung his other hand forward, and a burst of light whipped low across the ground. Samuel leapt over it, blades flashing. The angel sank into a defensive crouch, the glow picking up around him once more. Samuel jumped. He planted a foot squarely on the angel’s chest, and used the foothold to push himself further, up into the tree. He landed hard on a limb, and felt it crack. As he leapt from it, he struck the break, hard. The angel’s broken body could not move in time— the falling tree limb pinned him to the muddy ground.

He tried to push himself up. The weight of the branch on his back shoved him down. It shifted, driving his face down into the broken cacao pods. The pulp was slippery, thick in his nostrils. He coughed, and struggled harder. The sweet liquid center of the pod clung to him, seemed to work its way in with every struggling breath. The angel groaned in frustration, and pushed his wings out hard. They shoved the limb aside, then beat the air, drawing his weakened form to its feet.

“Such an improvement, Makhvet,” Samuel’s voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, working its hiss into the wind that stirred the trees. “Have you mastered your monkey so quickly? Tell me how you’ve done it, and I’ll let you leave with its life.”

The angel ignored Samuel. Blond strands had begun to fall into his face, lengthened by the strain of healing. His nails were growing out as well. It was a bad sign. Since the body’s fight was lost, this growth had to mean he was depleted. The body’s widespread need was drawing his effort away from its target. He curled in on himself. There was only so much he could heal if he had nothing left to work with. The scent of cacao pulp still lingered, and the pods were all over the ground. He grabbed a broken pod off the ground, and sucked what pulp he could out of it. It sharpened his hunger. His body tensed into an aching scream for sugar and salt. At least he could get the sugar—

Again, a dark shape dropped from the trees. This time he was ready. He accepted the weight of his attacker, twisting around as he collapsed. He snaked his left arm around Samuel’s leg, heedless of the knife sinking into his shoulder. He poured his power through that arm— the pressure of that energy crushed the younger angel’s femur. Samuel’s eyes lit. He cried out. Samuel kicked the angel with the leg he could move, battered him relentlessly in the face until the angel let go.

Samuel pulled himself up awkwardly, his right leg useless. He dropped the knife, then cried out again. The pressure of the Makhvet’s spirit seared him from the inside out. He clutched at his chest, and collapsed against a tree–trunk. His wings began to tremble, and their tips became discolored. At the edges of their extension, a few scattered feathers lost their blue–black sheen. A creeping stain seemed to eat their colour, turning them gray and edging them in tan.

“Took more than you wanted to, didn’t you?” The angel’s voice grew smoother, though his breathing remained weak. He grabbed another pod, and broke it open with one hand. The sweet pulp hit his throat, and its swelling eased. “It’s a rare talent. One who draws from the spirit of others.” He broke another pod, the rattle fading from his words. “I shouldn’t be surprised.” He grabbed a pale orange pod off the tree behind him, rapping it on the trunk greedily. “Nearly all your kind are corrupted, aren’t they?”

“Not all!” Samuel hissed. His dark wings folded around him, he closed his eyes. His femur itched, ached from the effort of mending. His hands hovered over his chest. He pushed the unwanted energy down, down into the break. The struggle gripped him, and brought a fresh sheen of sweat to his pallid skin. He forced his body to use that captured strength. Mending his bone consumed most of the Makhvet’s hostile energy, and eased the pressure within.

Samuel’s eyes snapped open— just in time. He leapt into the air again, letting another burst of energy sweep the ground below him. Blue–white light cut a trench in the ground, so great the force of the Makhvet’s anger behind it.

Samuel vaulted into the trees, struggling to slow his breath. Hot needles of pain burst from the half–mended break, streaking up his leg. He bit down on his lip, stifling a scream.

“I’ll find you,” the Makhvet said softly, without looking up. “Run or hide, you know I’ll find you.”

Part Thirteen

And Again, And Again…

Samuel forced his breathing to slow. He tucked himself into the darkness of his wings, curling them in around him. He tried to call the original visions back from his memory. Fear, pain, and adrenaline dragged him under the surface. The instinct to survive overpowered higher function. He let out a slow breath, trying to absorb the pain. He soaked it into himself, dwelt within it. He imagined himself coursing through the body with every ache, animating the body by streaking through its nerves.

In every vision he had, running ended the same way. A burst of force he could not withstand, could not defend against, met and overwhelmed him. The force entered his body unresisted, made his spirit receive it, and shattered his body in the effort to contain it. His wings could do nothing to protect him. He could not lead this angel, could not distract it. He could only move this angel by force, but then, he could move it completely.

Merde,” he whispered, “What have I provoked?” He bit his lip again, sucking traces of blood to curb his ache for salt. He licked a bit of cacao fruit from his fingers, and shuddered from the strain of it. The simple act of repairing one crushed bone made his body scream for relief. How could anyone force a body to repair so much? The name Makhvet was a false one. This creature was more than the legend its monicker described.

He could trade his name for the angel’s. Neither of them could know what advantage that would bring. With a name came the true image of the spirit, complete with its strengths and weaknesses. With a name came access. Samuel’s virtue was so strictured, so easily taken advantage of. Everything within him screamed out that revealing himself completely would be a fatal mistake.

But this virtue was relentless. It left him no peace in which to find his sight. He could find no opening, no point at which to strike. As weak as he would be once revealed, he was even weaker with no understanding of this angel. His blindness in the face of the enemy made panic set in to his spirit, brought him to directionless flailing. This angel revealed nothing of itself! It seemed to flow effortlessly into whatever Samuel threw its way. It did nothing to seek domain with him, it made no effort to force his hand. He had no idea if he weakened it or gave it strength with any action. It offered no clue as to its nature because it sought nothing, balked at nothing. It avoided nothing, it…

Samuel’s eyes lit. He smiled broadly, a dark and glittering grin. He tested the leg, pressed it hard underneath him. The mending held. He could not afford the slightest hesitation. He slid both his blades out of their sheaths, and launched himself out of the tree.

The angel whipped his hands out. A burst of brilliant blue light arced between them. Samuel tucked in, and let the light slip over his head harmlessly. His swords flashed. They sank into the Englishman’s shoulders. Metal sought nerve, sought to tear tendon from bone. The pain was intense, so piercing it made the angel’s wings drop reflexively. That threw them both off–balance. The same brilliant blue colour swept up the blades, burning Samuel’s hands. The agony of its captured energy followed.

Samuel let go of the knife, and slapped his hand hard against the angel’s forehead. He drew as hard as he could from the sword, sucking in greedily the energy he had been so frightened of before. His wings trembled, flailed as he bore the other angel to the ground. The flight pinions paled to a sickly gray, then burst into brilliant tan. His spirit quaked in his bones, buckling under the greater presence. He struggled, pouring all he could into the effort to withstand the onslaught.

Samuel pinned the angel down, his feet on its wings, his knees on its chest. With both hands he shoved the sword through the Makhvet’s shoulder, deep into the tree–root beneath them. He threw his whole weight into the effort to lodge it there. He choked, struggled to breathe. Through their connection, he could feel the pressure in his brother’s chest, feel the throat closing, feel weak and struggling blood barely pump through collapsing veins.

Samuel forced himself to draw in a breath. Those tawny wings gave off such a strong and familiar scent, crushed violets beneath his feet. His head felt like it was splitting. His heart beat so hard it threatened to burst. A familiar presence rose up in him, built of bits drawn from the angel’s spirit. Fragments, pieces, energies drawn through wound after wound. He brought them together under a single word, a single idea that united them. Slowly a symbol coalesced beneath his fingers, curling and crossing itself.

“Acceptance,” Samuel breathed. It was an invocation as much as a statement. With the word came relief. The fragments yielded to him, the virtue he’d captured flooded him with its grace. The colour rushed back into his wings. Their blue–black sheen returned.

“See, this is why I still beat you,” Samuel murmured happily. “Once I remember what you are, I can use you to help me deal with anything I take in.” He pulled on the knife in the angel’s shoulder. It was stuck, wedged under the scapula. Samuel wiggled it, felt it push uselessly in thick tendon and cartilage. He pulled again, harder. The angel groaned, twisting underneath him. “Again, and again, and again.” He sighed, relief and contentment thrumming beneath the sound. “You win on occasion, and I have to admit, you had me convinced this would be just such an event.”

The angel gasped, but said nothing. His eyes were blank, his wing jerked and convulsed with every movement of the little blade. “I do apologize, I didn’t mean to get this one stuck,” Samuel murmured. “But I really must insist we finish this fight. I know I won’t survive much more than I have.” Samuel wrapped both hands around the hilt of the knife, shifting to get leverage on the blade.

“Your fight will never be finished,” the angel whispered. His voice was weak, the sound barely carrying past his lips. “The Gate will pursue you so long as you enslave the souls of men.”

“Will it?” Samuel cocked his head. “That would be interesting.” He let go of the knife, and brushed the hair out of the captive angel’s eyes. “Funny. You are still not as awakened as I. So much power from so little of you.” He rocked back on his heels, forced to rest. “I have enslaved no souls.”

“Your murders…” the angel tried to force itself up. The pain forced a scream from him, a piercing howl that shook the very trees. The angel fell back, exhausted. The Englishman’s golden hair grew heavy, dark with blood soaking from his wounds. The last shades of colour drained from his face. That face, once so striking, had become sunken and drawn. The effort to live leached the life from its flesh, left the body hollowed.

“I murdered only my murderers,” Samuel hushed the angel, his voice soft and lilting. “I mean the monkeys no harm, but why should I lie down and die for them?”

The angel’s brow knitted in confusion, then his eyes drifted closed. He let out a soft rattling breath, then his battered lungs barely moved.

“You won’t fool me again,” Samuel purred. “Your bleeding has stopped but I still hear it move in you.” He wrapped both hands against the knife again, and threw his weight back to pull it free. “If you can keep this body moving without a head, I will be much impressed.” With a sucking squish it left the angel’s shoulder.

The angel opened his eyes. Samuel lifted the angel’s chin, and pushed it back. “You meant well this time. I’ll try to speed this along.” He whispered to the knife— “Sever.” Dark blue flames licked the blade. They sank into the metal, infused it. One by one the last wisps disappeared into its edge.

The angel could only watch. A murky scent filled the air, like spices he’d almost forgotten so far from home. Their mixture was heady and intense. Clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, sandalwood, burning leaves. Familiar, distracting— the scent made him ache with loneliness. He stretched his hands out, trying to push himself up, push Samuel away from him. His hands found no purchase, no weapon, nothing of use. His fingers found only rotted cacao pods and soggy leaves. The pain was too much. He grew still.

Samuel lifted the knife, drawing it back. His voice grew warm, his wings stirred. “I’ll meet you home soon, Malavai. We’ll laugh about this then.”

The Englishman’s fingers twitched. The familiarity of Samuel’s address sparked something old and terrifying in him. A sudden fury seized him. Something inexpressible burned up from the darkness behind his eyes, flooding them with light. His fingers curled around a rotten cacao pod, impulse overtaking his pain. He heaved against his agony, and smashed the cacao pod into Samuel’s eyes.

The knife flew from Samuel’s hands. It disappeared into the leaf–litter. The Makhvet arched, an inchoate scream tearing itself from his pallid lips. Samuel tried to pull his wings in— too late. They caught the force of the angel’s fury, and blanched. As though the force of the sound had flung him, like wind in his pinions, Samuel skidded backward until he fetched up against a tree. He lay there, fighting for consciousness and losing.

The angel let out a cry, harsher than the last. With each tremble of his voice a fresh wave of anger hit the very fabric of the world around him. Leaves flew into the air, shredded to bits by inhuman fury. The sword that held him began to keen, to oscillate visibly. The angel’s voice lifted. Its scream separated into several voices, all fighting to escape the same abused throat. The sword pulsed wildy, once, twice— then shattered, bits of it flying in all directions. Shards of metal tore themselves from the angel’s shoulder, fleeing his wrath though they ripped their escape through his flesh.

The Makhvet struggled to stand. He fell, and tried to stand again. His body felt faraway, ill–fitting. Its nerves felt deadened. It barely responded to him. It could not support his wings any longer. He let them drop. This eased the strain on him only a little, and left him dizzier for the loss. He blinked, once, twice, trying to make his fading eyesight clear. He fell to his knees. He looked at the younger angel as though seeing him for the first time. Those dark wings, spread out on the ground, limp as though broken. The anger fell away from him, sloughed off and left him struck by the sight.

“Samuel…” he breathed. The Crown’s accent fell from his voice, replaced by something more fluid, with harsher tones against the vowels. “Aw hell. Not again.”

Part Fourteen

Blood And Chocolate

p. A cool breeze he couldn’t feel. Sunlight that filtered through him, fell on the grass below. Stretched out together, watching the clouds go by against a blue, blue sky. Both of them lanky, tall and graceful. They couldn’t be more opposite— the sun–drenched angel with the warm, soft wings, and the pale dark figure of Samuel, with black feathers tucked behind him.

“Why do we keep doing this?” the angel mused sleepily in Malakhrit. His eyes were dark deep blue, with swirls of bright turquoise swimming in their depths. The lids hung half–closed, a soft look over his features as he let out a breath.

“Because it’s fun,” Samuel purred. He tucked his hands behind his head, and stretched as taut as he could.

“It’s a pain in the ass, is what it is,” the angel grumbled.

“For me, I think the pain was in my chest.” Samuel curled up to a sitting position, and looked down the hill. Two strangers, empty shells now. Bodies lain together, broken and bled dry. A dark river of crimson, so pretty against the emerald grass. One lay impaled through the chest, the other with a short sword embedded to the hilt in its belly. An impish grin seized Samuel’s lips, his voice lit with accomplishment. “Did I actually hit your ass? Seriously?”

The angel reached over, and smacked Samuel on the back of the head. “It’s a figure of speech, jackass.” He pulled himself to his feet, and brushed himself off reflexively— though none of the physical could cling to him now. “You are way too proud of yourself for this. This is a colossal fuckup.”

“Mmm. Says you.” Samuel pulled his knees up to his chest, his smile undimmed. “I’m counting it as a win. You would have attacked me too, you know, I foresaw it.”

“Pfft.” The angel curled a wing forward, and picked at the short feathers along the strut. “You’re a twit, you know. Your virtue takes you at peacetime, and shows you every critical outcome that can unfold within the landscape as it is, right?”

“That’s more or less how it works, yeah.” Samuel fluffed his dark wings, and stretched them out gently in the sun. Though he couldn’t feel its warmth, he loved the glint it made, the blue shimmers that darted down his feathers. “Whether it’s a word or an action or a choice, I get to pick the most crucial of timing.”

“Well,” the angel snapped his wings out, hard. A few discarded feathers flew loose, and drifted into nothingness. “There’s two problems with your approach right there. For the first, there’s just not much you can do that’s critical with me. Fuck’s sake, left to my own I’m the mildest, most easygoing creature in the cosmos.”

Samuel pitched forward, rising smoothly to his feet. He jerked a slender thumb at the pile of carnage behind them. “Oh yeah. I could totally feel that when you shattered my ribcage. I dare say that was the most easygoing sucking chest wound I’ve ever had.”

“Well that brings us to the second problem— you’ve had the foresight lecture from Beyt, haven’t you? The future you’re looking at is affected by what you’re going to do with the knowledge. So you see the outcome of what’s going to happen when you have your typical overreaction and jump me before I know what’s happening.” The angel tossed his golden hair, and sucked in a meaningless but reflexive breath. “You make a critical moment more likely when you look for it, and there is really only one context for crucial moments with me.”

“Mmm.” Samuel fluttered his wings, then tucked the dark pinions behind him elegantly. “I’m sorry. Were you saying something? I was too busy enjoying the happy glow of having kicked your ass. Or pierced it.” His pale blue eyes lit with joy, sparkling like ice on a winter morning. “I notice you still haven’t answered my question.”

“Heaven save me,” the angel slapped his forehead with a slender hand. “Why do I put up with you?”

“You loooooove me,” Samuel purred. “You can’t even pretend you don’t. I’ve got pieces of you that feel it.”

“Mm.” The angel smiled despite himself, and flared his wings. “Just be careful you don’t absorb the bit of me that knows why.” He pushed gently into the air, and his wings reached for the sky. In a single beat he dissolved from Awas, his spirit freed from the earth.

“Heh,” Samuel swung a wing forward, preening his dark feathers with contented fingers. He whispered, tenderly, “I’ve got a bit of that with me too.” _]

Samuel stirred. The warmth of memory began to fade, replaced by the complaints of an aching body. His wings felt fragile, paled and shivering. He reached for the memory again, to feel the warmth in it. Bit by bit the angel’s fragments yielded to him, suffused him with the strength to accept the energy flung against him. Samuel tried to push himself to his feet. A scream tore itself from his lips— hot, electric pains shot up his battered spine. Every twitch of his wings brought another gut–wrenching pain— the muscles of his back responding reflexively, as though bearing up under their weight. He set his teeth and tried to concentrate. He blinked, eyes adjusting slowly to the night.

“Don’t try to move,” the angel rasped. The healing of his throat was beginning to give way, so the swelling had returned. Blood and air bubbled from his ragged chest wound. “Samuel— please. I’m not your enemy. Remember me.”

“You could give me your name,” Samuel said weakly. “That might help me—”

“The hell it would,” the angel snapped back in another language. The fluid song of Malakhrit sparked something in Samuel’s chest, made him feel calmer, steadier. “You’d use it against me and you know it.”

“So little faith in me,” Samuel whispered.

“I have every faith in your being who you are,” the angel coughed. His cheeks were sunken, skin drawn tight against bone. Samuel smiled despite himself. The body was eating itself trying to survive. The angel’s eyes were dull, the life draining out of them. It smelled to him of victory. It brought the flush back to his skin.

“I will do you a kindness in a moment, once I am mended,” Samuel’s voice was soft, lilting playfully. “Look at us, Malavai. Our toys are broken. We might as well finish this.”

“Toad–fucking worm–eaten snot–covered son of a fatherless whore!” The angel pulled itself unsteadily to its feet, and did its best to stagger backward. “I could have killed you, the true you! I nearly stripped your wings!”

“But you didn’t,” Samuel’s wings hiked forward of their own accord, and he gasped from the pain of it. “And you never will.”

“Rotting little whelp,” the angel spat blood, and a tooth came free with it. His gaunt frame folded, and he fell back to his knees. What was left of his uniform hung off him loosely, the ruined cotton duck of his trousers held up by braces alone. The high waisted slacks hung round his hips, and the legs sagged and bunched around his boots. “Pinheaded ass–for–brains dog–faced slackjawed pus bucket!”

Samuel burst out laughing. “Ah, I missed that. You’ve got such a knack for aggressive words.” He pushed away from the tree, wincing but holding himself steady. His eyes began to empty, to pick up a glow from within. “But it’s not enough. You’re getting tired, Malavai. You’re close to seeking peace. The moment you do, I’ll have you. There is no inch of this ground I have not walked, no part of it I cannot see.”

The Makhvet’s worn body sagged. He could feel his abused flesh aching, begging for rest. All the power he could pour into it could not stem its wasting, could not slow its spill onto the jungle floor. He spat again, spilling more teeth onto the leaf–litter with the gesture. The flesh had begun to peel back from his fingernails. Deep within he had begun to accept defeat— and once he did, it would be his to embrace. The proud and ancient creature within him rejected this concession— set his teeth against it, and demanded he fight. The ire rose in his throat, commanding that he punish this little creature for its presumption. It rose in him more strongly than blood, than breath, than fire. It pulled his head up and lit his eyes. It forced the words from his lips.

“You are mistaken,” the angel snapped. He groaned, and the bright vision of his wings pressed out into the air. “And you are about to be enlightened.” His tawny wings flexed, clawing at the world of man. Beat by beat they drew his battered form to its feet. They kept beating, as though driving his failing heart. They were too weak to move the air, too weak to make a sound, but they kept him from falling and that was enough.

No time to think. He knew he mustn’t think. He fled, pushing the body far beyond its remaining strength. Little strings of muscle snapped, sending hot tearing pains rushing through his limbs. He ignored them. His chest flailed uselessly, begging for breath. His lungs burned, his muscles felt dead and heavy. Meaningless. He concentrated on taking the pain, letting instinct guide him. He would not plan. He forced the spark of idea far from his thoughts.

He burst out of the tree cover, and slid on slick mud. He tried to stop, too late. He plowed headfirst into the river–mud. His chin hit a stone, flayed open. The gash oozed only a little blood, flesh made pale and starved by his failing heart. His wings beat hard, pulling him up once more. He fell against a boat tied up at the river–bank, secured with a wooden stake.

“Ebenast!” he hissed. Release! The command seemed dim and foreign to his human ears, as the body fell further and further from the spirit’s control. The ropes broke apart, ruptured from within. The boat slid towards the river, and the angel fell into it, a heap of wasted flesh and dead–pale skin. He beat his wings harder, and the boat began to drift. The hair pushing out from his scalp now was so clear it appeared white, all pigment drained from it. He tried to claw his way to a sitting position. Even his night–black fingernails had begun to grow clear, so brittle they broke off against the wood.

“What, escape?” Samuel yelled from the treeline. He spoke in English to be sure the dying man would understand him. “You’d cheat me of my victory? Foul play!” He ran down to the bank. The footprints he left in the soft mud spoke of his unnatural balance, deep impressions on the toes and balls of the foot, and nothing to speak of his heels. He launched himself over the water, poised to land in the boat.

The angel brought his hands together, too tired to even speak his will. A burst of light streaked, low towards Samuel’s legs. Samuel smirked, legs already drawing up towards his body. His attack hit the water, then shoved the Makhvet back hard against the boat. The boat skipped back across the water, and Samuel landed in the river.

Merde!” Samuel sputtered. There was not breath to say more. The river came alive around him, seeming to boil. The frenzied thrashing of hungry little creatures tossed spray into the air. The Makhvet’s blood, his own, all drove these little things crazy with the urge to feed. Their turmoil made it hard to stay afloat. Turbulence began to suck him down. Instinctive panic seized his body, drove it out of his control. The vision of his dark wings disappeared.

Samuel folded in on himself, pulling as tightly as he could. He sucked in a breath, and let himself slip under the water. Denied its hyperventilation, the body slowed its racing heart, and calmed its frantic struggle. Hundreds of tiny teeth ripped at him, pulled bits of his clothing and flesh away. Slowly fury shredded up through his fear, and burst from him in waves. A dark blue pulse burst from his body. It raced through the river. Another followed, and another. The pulses drove the water, compressed it until it cut like knives. Attacking fish shredded to bits before the onslaught. The remainder fell to attacking one another.

Samuel broke the surface, pulling air into his lungs as quickly as he could. He blinked, blood and river mud thick in his eyes. The boat, where was the boat— a flash of light in his peripheral vision caught his attention. He turned in the water, searching for its source. He had just enough time to see a prow bearing down on him. Then it struck him, and shoved him into the blackness. It came with a surprising pain, a moment of sheer agony before the brain gave up and shut him down. Darkness engulfed him completely, and everything was gone.

“What the hell?” he heard, dim and faraway. “Who sharpens a boat?”

Down below Samuel’s perceptions, the angel was leaning over the stern. A bright red stain beneath him, spreading quickly between the frenzied creatures drawn to it. Tiny pale slips of fish, that burrowed into deep wounds, eating the flesh out from within. Samuel tried to collect his senses, tried to coalesce into form. Bit by bit he regained himself, collecting like mist on glass.

“Tell me what just happened?” Samuel was honestly puzzled.

“There you are,” the angel sagged into the boat, closing his eyes. He continued in Malakhrit: “I must be pretty close to death myself, since I can hear you like that.”

“Never mind you,” Samuel said, impatient. “What just happened to me?”

“I tried to knock you unconscious with the boat,” the angel sank down with a grateful sigh. “But I ended up slicing you open instead. It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it?” He chuckled, a dry and painful sound.

“You are such a dick.” Samuel let himself drift down, under the water. The boat had indeed been sharpened. A piece of tinny metal had been carefully beaten into the shape of the prow, and nailed into place. Pitch covered the fastened end, and the cutting edge had been scraped deadly, likely with rocks. “Luck. Pure luck.”

“You’d have seen it coming,” the angel whispered, “if you’d walked the river. If it had been good enough for you. You’re such a snob, you know. Even the local ruffians knew you turned your nose up at it. That’s how I knew, if I had a chance it would be here.”

“Hmpf. Like you’re any better.” Samuel rose slowly from the water, and hovered over the angel’s dying form. “It’s not much of a victory, is it? I mean, you’ve got what? Hours?”

“Enh. I thank the heavens for local tastes.” The angel struggled with numb fingers, and pulled a dirty blanket down into the bottom of the boat. The gesture uncovered a bundle of salted fish, and a basket of fruit stolen from the day’s breakfast. He smiled unsteadily as he noticed a cacao pod almost lost amongst the imported fruit. He dug it out and did his best to lift it, as if in toast. “Here’s to monkey greed. It does come in handy now and then.” Too weak to break the pod, the angel whispered to it— it cracked open for him. He sucked in the pulp, enormous seeds and all.

Samuel let the boat drift away from him. He watched the fish wriggle in his corpse with a mixture of fascination and disgust. At times his limbs looked almost animated, so moved by struggling creatures. He remembered their mouths on his arms, their insistant digging at his shins. He shuddered, suddenly grateful he’d been thrown from the body before this began in earnest.

“Such a dick,” he muttered. He turned his attention back to the boat, as it drifted downriver. It pushed into the fleshy river–weeds, and Samuel smirked. He imagined what the Don would do with this bedraggled Englishman found drifting in his domain. Not to mention the thief who properly owned that boat. The weeds would do what he had not—

Samuel slapped his forehead abruptly. “Of course!” Sure enough, the river weed parted before the boat’s little prow, sliced over and over by the boat’s rocking. “Clever little monkeys.” The mystery would be a persistant annoyance for the elder angel. Samuel’s thoughts sparkled lightly over possible demands he could make for the answer. He spread his wings wide, and reached with all his being for the world beyond.

More of Malakhim

Other Titles by Aleph:

  • {color:#000;}Malakhim Volume 1: Here After
  • {color:#000;}Malakhim Volume 2: Sight Unseen
  • {color:#000;}Malakhim Volume 3: Fool’s Errand
  • {color:#000;}Malakhim Volume 4: In the Blood
  • {color:#000;}Malakhim Volume 5: Super Human

Connect with Malakh Studios:

  • {color:#000;}Malakhim Website: malakh.com
  • {color:#000;}Twitter: @malakhstudios
  • {color:#000;}Shakespir: Shakespir.com/books/byseries/12067

Malakhim Volume 6: The End of Everything

It's been too easy to get comfortable. Too easy to pretend that what we have will always go on the way that it is. Too easy to get complacent, too easy to lose sight of what's important. Old pains and new ones ache to remind us that everything ends. We do our best to keep that wisdom at bay. There's someone out there who has never had that luxury. Someone who has no comfort, no room to pretend. Someone determined to put an end to everything, the moment he gets the chance. Someone for whom these years have been torment unending, who intends to visit that torment upon those who set it in motion. Fate is closing in on Ben. His time is running out. Ben is faced with terrible realizations. Answers come unbidden, to questions Ben never wanted to ask. The impossible dream is ending, and Ben is confronted with just how impossible it was. It's hard to tell what's real anymore, in the pale light before morning. It's hard to face the rising sun, when it may be the last light you see. Did Ben really believe this could go on forever? It could, though. With a little help, it could. There are blank pages left at the back of Ben's book. There's a chance for Ben to rewrite its end. Heaven can't always see Ben. It can't always predict him. It can't always stop him. Not when he's in the grips of the power he's been trying so hard to escape. That power will keep him alive at any cost. Any cost at all. Ben's soul. An angel's immortal life. Are they too high a price to pay for an eternal, impossible dream? Can he convince himself that it's worth it? Do the ends really justify these means? Ben isn't sure. But there's something inside him that is. Something inside him that knows what it wants, and will do anything to make it happen. No matter who gets hurt, no matter what's destroyed. No cost is too high to a creature that values nothing. Nothing beyond what it wants. Right now, what it wants is Ben.

  • ISBN: 9781467596053
  • Author: Aleph
  • Published: 2017-02-14 01:35:25
  • Words: 104648
Malakhim Volume 6: The End of Everything Malakhim Volume 6: The End of Everything