When It All Goes Down
The eldest girls were huddled in the common room. The younger ones were in the basement. There were instructions for times like this, when the forces of evil visited the mission. The girls waited at the bottom of the stairs, their eyes cast faithfully up towards the darkness at their top. The lights had gone out, and the thumping had stopped. Their angel would emerge victorious any moment now.
But it was the boy, not the angel, who came striding down the stairs. He pulled one of the mission's sweatshirts down over a gaping hole in his chest. He didn't even bleed!
The sound brought them all down to their knees. That was not the voice of a boy. It was too powerful, coming from everywhere, through everyone. It moved through their bones, keened in their blood. They'd all seen him, he'd been a human child like any of them when he'd come to the mission. Something had happened to the boy. Something that had had been promised to them all. Their little hearts quickened, seized by a shared and frenzied hope. The boy had been transformed.
The eldest girls stood, tense and eager. What had once been Ben stepped between them, and pointed towards the basement hatch. He spoke with his eyes closed, but moved as though he could see.
"Gather your sisters, and prepare yourselves for redemption."
Upstairs, Rahab tried to shut out that preternatural voice. He'd never heard anything on the earth speak that way. There were only a few things back Home those words even reminded him of, and they were too ridiculous for Rahab to consider. Probably a perception virtue, he thought, like Kira. Throwing shadows and fooling the senses to look bigger and badder than it was.
And it was pretty damn bad.
"Soon, all who dwell in this mission shall see the will of God."
Rahab turned the weapon over and over in his palm. He thought he could see how it was supposed to attach, but he still wasn't quite sure what it did. Given that it bore the Archer's signature, he probably had to tap something sappy, something to do with love. It seemed to warm when Kira got close to it, that was the only clue it had given him so far. That really wasn't much to go on at all. His feelings for Kira could be summed up in three words. She was there.
"You should go with them." Damn. He couldn't even think about her without her opening her mouth. Her voice always pulled his focus away, demanded so much of his attention, and he wanted to focus on the weapon. "What could this enforcer be like?"
"Gonna find out," Rahab muttered.
"You will all know redemption this night."
Even though he had no use for them personally, Rahab resented this kid taking over his little cache of souls. He'd worked his ass off rounding them up so Amib could work his little light-show and bless their wretched hearts into worshipful submission. They came in like captured lions, and went out like lambs to the slaughter-- the ones who still had fight in them, he could slaughter as he pleased. He was pretty sure he knew what the kid was going to do with 'em-- blow 'em all in one mass offing, so no one would track him down. It wasn't a tactic Rahab ever approved of. It was a coward's exit, one that offended him on so many levels.
"You saw what the kid did to Jeke!" Kira's voice kept tugging at him.
"Jeke was a dumbass," Rahab brushed her off. "An hour or two and we won't even remember his name. It was a waste." The memory of that kid was only lingering in the meat, the angel in Rahab couldn't hang on to any sense of a spirit once it died. Even the meat didn't remember Jeke as anything to sing home about. His own Aspect would have known better than to compare the two of them. He missed that about her. He missed so many things. But she'd made her choice. She'd stayed with Michael when Rahab turned his back on Heaven. He didn't hold a grudge. And no matter where she was, she was damn sure still his.
And there it was. The glow that had been struggling in the weapon's eye burst into a corona of light. Well that was useful.
"I can save my ass or hurt somebody. Wow, what a no-brainer." She would have known that, too. They were so far apart that he couldn't even bring himself to think her name, because he knew how sharp the pain would be. Just courting the idea felt like driving a knife into his guts.
The light coming off the weapon started to solidify. It glinted, and he could see bits of it taking shape. The knife he used to carry when he first hunted mankind on the earth started forming in his hand. It was just as pretty as he remembered, ornate and delicate, with a feather-thin edge to the blade. Before mankind proliferated, with his insufferable faith in an empty impassive universe, angels could walk the earth with their own weapons. They could pick up anything, and shape it as they pleased, so long as they could connect. Then mankind's influence compounded, and above all it was so fond of severing connections. The weapon's eye flared brighter, and Rahab closed his hand around the knife's hilt. Everything about the blade made him feel warm inside.
"I see one way to come at this guy, and I'm going to give it a try." He turned the knife over, admiring the details. Every nick, every scratch was perfect. "You think Amib's little trick is beyond a badass of that magnitude?" Pointing out the obvious to this little slip of nothing just made him miss the real thing more. "Nah."
Rahab tried another shape. He tried for the hooked blade he'd taken off of Maresh, a thin, scooping saber that parried well and tended to yank other weapons out of an attacker's hands. It took a little longer, and a little more concentration, but he could bring that forth too.
"There's politic behind this," Rahab grinned. "Some kind of sneaky bullshit. Just what I live to bust up."
"Then I'm staying with you." She clung to him, wrapping herself around his free arm. Rahab didn't even look at her. His eyes were on the light sliding down that captured blade.
"I'm fighting an enforcer of Michael's, chippie. Wouldn't kill you, but might mess up your pretty face for payback." The Gate would have arrived immediately, when one of their own was in trouble. So if someone was coming now, lone and slow, they had to be with Michael. And Rahab knew Michael's army, hell, he used to be one of the guys leading it. "I would," he drove the point home.
"I don't care!" Kira just clung harder. The weapon hummed even louder, and Rahab played with its power experimentally. He could make just about anything appear, if he felt enough about it.
"Kira," Rahab said distantly, not really paying attention to her anymore, "You're a sweet piece of Aspect. But my claim's on another." The weapon twitched in his palm, tugging the blade towards her. Rahab stilled it by force. "Don't expect me to get all protective now."
Rahab let his hand drop, and the sword collapsed into nothing, midair. The weapon didn't even sustain itself a second if he wasn't supplying it with energy, and lots of it. Wielding it was thrilling, but the effort drained him quickly. He'd need every bit of strength he had left just to use that weapon when it counted.
"It'll be all I can do to hold my ground long enough to spill the beans." Rahab let out a short, happy sigh. "Piss off something that could probably wink me to a cinder. Wouldn't that be a kick."
Rahab shoved the Archer's weapon into his pocket, confident he understood it now. "Be a good girl," he shooed Kira. "Run along."
"I hate you." She didn't mean it, and she wouldn't let go.
"Show me your devotion."
Time for talk was over. This was going down right now.
"Sing for me."
Every girl in the mission had gathered in the meeting room, around the table where they took communion. They'd offered pillows, snatched from their bedrolls in the common room and piled on their makeshift altar. They knelt around the boy, their hands up and praying to the boy who sat on that pile. Their eyes went blank, and their faces slack.
One by one, they threaded together into song. The same words, at different pitches and tempos, like they were answering one another. The words floated from their throats, soft and mournful, filled with profound loss.
"Asam saq'alam niwa sowhe wo..." Ripped and bloodied to every end-- the words bit deep into Nathan's heart, and stopped him in his tracks. He'd almost made it to the mission's door. "Ari'q soame sari." Longsuffering, the mark of war. Nathan gritted his teeth, swaying a little, caught up in the sound. "Ashem sowhe niwa ha're lo..." Anguish welled up in him, too old and too immense for him to bear. The awful separation, the broken edges, they were as fresh now as when this song first spilled into his wounds. He kept his feet, but barely. Dimly he could hear White beside him, the worried human voice begging for his focus. Nothing could tear his attention from those voices. Nothing could stop his heart from reaching out to that sound.
"Nisat qa'ame towen..." He felt the heavens closing in on him, felt the ending of faith dripping through his hands. He clenched them into fists at his sides. He was losing his grip on this world, slipping back into memories too powerful for him to contain. He wasn't ready for this. He couldn't succumb to this. He couldn't fight it, but he had to try.
"Oh..." Nathan gasped. "That song..." He gritted his teeth as hard as he could, squeezing his eyes shut as though he could stop his spirit from surging up to meet the words. "It's a hymn from the war!"
"Issam nowhe ita'iqa we..." Nathan started to sink, he could feel his knees buckling. The words kept ringing in his ears, and they really did rip away control. The pain howling inside him kept welling up to the surface, more intense every time his will gave way. He kept pushing it back, fighting to remain himself. Fighting to remain Nathan, even if he couldn't remember why.
"Soweq ni'ashar lo..." He was so close to breaking. There was no time. He could feel where this was going, and he wouldn't survive the next refrain.
"You OK, friend?" White was saying. Nathan still couldn't open his eyes. He felt as though if he let what was rising in them out, it would burn everything left of him away.
"I will be," he muttered. He willed it to be true.
"You need to sit this thing out?" White had a hand on Nathan's arm. That touch seemed so small, so far away.
"No..." Nathan wrested control back over his voice, drawing its harmonies by force into a single note. "I want to end this, NOW!" He threw himself at the mission door.
Ben hadn't stopped to listen to the hymn. He'd called the first girl up to him, placing a hand on her head as she sang. While Nathan's plan stalled, the angel trapped in their voices, Ben was using that time for plans of his own.
"What can compare to this unquestioning humility, when forging a weapon against eternal arrogance."
The girl shuddered, and surrendered to that touch, those voices. They drew something up within her, a warmth that seemed to leave her with every breath. It left her colder and colder, but all she could want was to give up more.
"So trusting. I love you monkeys when you know your place."
He pulled his hand back, and turned her face up to his. The warm breath leaving her began to sizzle in the air. Blue tendrils escaped her nose and lips, coursing into the palm of his hand.
"Take your place."
She couldn't focus on what she saw in that hand, but she couldn't look away. Her flesh began to peel back, shrivelling up as though everything alive in it were being drained away. The colour left her eyes. Her blood, her bones, they all felt like they were emptying out into that breath. Everything that stood in the way of that light just withered and gave itself up to Ben's touch. Cloth, hair, skin, flesh, it all fell to tatters and surrendered whatever it could give.
"Adastz hai. Relinquish yourself to my service."
It was just one long exhalation now, and she couldn't draw anything back in. It just kept leaving her and leaving her, until there was nothing left to give. She yielded everything. The last of her flesh withered away from dried-up, empty bones. There was nothing left of her, nothing that had been a human being. What remained collapsed-- a bundle of dry bones, a heap of tattered clothing and parchment skin stretched tightly over a few places where it could still cling.
The door splintered, and slammed open. The hollow boy didn't even look up as the angel burst in. He was playing with the light in his palm.
"STOP!" Nathan thundered. "RELEASE THAT SOUL!"
The singing stopped. Nathan was still unsteady, but now anger replaced anguish and he pushed through the girls to get to Ben. The girls flailed at him, some of them armed, others just clawing at him with their little pink hands. Nathan seized one of them, forcing her mouth open with one hand while he held another girl at bay. He peered into her mouth, searching for something in her throat. He found what he was looking for, the faint glimmers of a human soul.
"Try to be careful," He shoved the girls away, and grabbed a third at random. He forced her mouth wide, and watched the air move when she screamed. Her suffering kindled her breath, little embers only visible to unnatural eyes. "These children-- don't harm them. They're being controlled, but they're still alive."
"Umm," White tried to shake off the fingers digging at his eyes, his arm coming up to block a rotten bat that swung wildly past him. "That's nice and all, but they're aimin' a lot of harm at us." White wrenched the bat-handle out of the girl's hand, and kicked the broken piece away. "I ain't immortal. You got a solution in mind?"
"Fine." Nathan swept his arms out, and threw the girls aside. An answering thump came from his wings, still insubstantial and largely formless behind him. The air fled before those wings, knocking the girls nearest Nathan off their feet. A shock ran through the mission, drawing dangerous creaks from its walls. "I'll take care of them myself," he muttered.
The light in his eyes grew blinding, and he could feel his sigil blazing out between them. His spirit spilled up, still writhing in anger and agony. He put his fingers together, trying to force those energies to take their shape. He had to reach for structure. He had to reach for calm.
"Children of dust, find peace." So many voices, all of them familiar, all of them his. Harmonies that threaded together, split and reformed in the echoes. There was pressure behind that sound, and it pushed all the human beings back, slowing them. "And with it, rest." Nathan could feel his wings stretching out, aching for a place in the world around him.
"What the--" White was staggering, too. He couldn't keep his eyes open. He tried to take a step towards Nathan, but his feet wouldn't move.
"Another angel," a little blonde girl near the altar gasped. She fell against her sister, and slipped into a dreamless sleep. Every child of man in the building succumbed to Nathan's spirit, and slumped to the floor.
All but one. One empty child, standing defiantly on a makeshift altar, the fading light of a lost little girl tumbling around in his palm.
Nathan's wings flared wide. Their struts jerked forward, threatening arches that found expression in his eyes. Hate burned from the depths of Nathan's spirit, lighting the world around him in blue-white fire. His teeth were bared, and a growl rose up in the back of his throat. He threw himself into the attack, heedless of the bodies he stepped on and over, closing what distance remained between he and the boy.
Ben's hand lifted, and a splash of sapphire seared the child's palm. Ben's sightless eyes opened. A slow, satisfied grin took the slack out of his features.
Nathan vaulted off a pile of sleeping bodies.
"Let's see what you've got," he muttered, readying his attack.
His wings were heavy on his shoulders now, they fluttered behind him and kept him in the air. The light in his eyes had grown richer, a deeper teal. Moment by moment, more and more of Nathan's spirit flooded to the surface. The hymn still rang in his memory, its pull still tore at his heart. Nothing in the room existed to him, anymore. Nothing but he and the monstrosity he faced. Everything around them slowed, their progress through time dragged almost to a halt by the energies passing between he and the boy. He felt like he could hang in the air forever, aloft on pure fury.
The boy's hand opened wider. Blue-white flame kindled, mixing into the captured mist he'd been playing with. It stretched like a soap bubble, and Nathan could see a desperate face mixed into its outline. Its hollow eyes were pleading with him, its mouth opened in a soundless cry.
"Wait, that's--" Nathan's eyes widened, and their light faded. He folded in on himself, pulling his arms across his face. His spirit retreated, his wings felt insubstantial just as he needed them. He tried to pull their pinions forward, to draw their safety in around him. There was just no time. He lost the pressure he'd exerted on the world around him, and it all came rushing in at once.
Terrifying force struck him. It targeted his body, tearing through flesh and burrowing through to the spirit beneath. It felt like a punch to the gut, and then it pushed and kept on pushing. It jolted him back to his human senses, then tried to force him out of them. He began to slip away from the world, the energy prying him away from Creation using his earthly body as a wedge. It carried him back across the room, lifting him nearly to the ceiling. He heard a crunch, felt grinding across his back, and for a dizzying moment he thought his bones were being crushed. Would he even feel them, if they were?
Then it was over, as suddenly as it began. Nathan collapsed, sprawled face-down on the floor. Plaster and bits of drywall rained down around him, dislodged from a crushed depression he'd left in the wall. The angel's fire flickered out. Human eyes stared blankly at carpet.
The only light in the room shone from naked, incandescent bulbs. The boy's hands were empty. Nathan's body lay still.