A girl's voice.
"It's so dark..."
Kenneth White echoed the sentiment, if not aloud. He blinked, trying to get a grasp on his senses. The last thing he remembered clearly was that he was fighting alongside the angel. The girls-- they'd been possessed, coming at him from all directions. He'd called out to the angel for help, and it had... it had...
The memories were elusive, and hard to keep hold of. That's how it always was, when an angel acted upon the world. Kenneth knew how to concentrate, to keep his recall anchored to something within himself. A little determination and it would all become clear.
"Children of dust, find peace." That's what the angel had ordered. "And with it, rest." White's head swam, a fresh wave of drowsiness lapping at his senses. He shook it off. With that one command, Nathan had knocked every human being in the place senseless, from the look of things.
"Damn," White muttered. "Never seen ANYTHING like that before." The angels he'd worked for had some pretty impressive powers, but they'd never shown him anything on that kind of scale.
The room was getting really dark. There was some kind of smoke pouring across the floor. As a tendril got close to him, White instinctively jerked his head clear. He kept losing his bearings. He fought to get them back. The girls around him were squirming, writhing on the floor. Black tendrils sought out their noses, their mouths, their ears and eyes. Places of expression, White thought. Of perception and connection. Places that gave access to the soul.
The room shuddered, rocked by the force of a terrible voice. It was laughing. White's senses were slowly catching up to it. He turned, and saw the boy. Ben's little head was thrown back, and that horrible laughter erupted from his frail throat. His hands were splayed wide, his little frame sucked in as though emptied of everything. Even under that sweater, Kenneth thought the boy looked painfully empty. Such a shame, he thought. Such a horrible shame.
"Nathan?" White finally laid eyes on the angel. He was face-down on the carpet, clear back on the other side of the room. Kenneth approached him warily. You never knew what a wounded angel would do. But Nathan wasn't doing anything. White narrowed his eyes, letting his Sight take over. Nothing changed. The body before him didn't even look like an angel at all.
"Oh man, no way..." The cold running down his spine lingered where it met the pressure in the back of his waistband. "It can't go down like this, you hear me?" His voice went up, tight with panic. "I ain't shootin' no litle boy!"
"Oh, I knew you wouldn't disappoint me!"
The sounds mixed into that growling purr brought White to his knees. It thrilled with something dark, something beyond his capacity to name. It was a pressure exerted from everywhere. Instinct drove him to resist the words, and he trusted that. He fought to shut them out. His body quaked. His bones were vibrating like a cheap pager. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.
"Untapped and old as bitterness itself! Once you learn what hate really means..."
White turned slowly, steadying himself as well as he could. The boy was hunched forward now, his sightless eyes staring past White at Nathan's prone and empty form. The boy shuddered, and brought his hands up, curling them in possessively. He licked his lips, and smiled again.
"Even now it's almost too much power to contain."
The tendrils of smoke yanked in. Wisps of something White couldn't quite see followed after, as though leaking out of the girls. The glimmers seemed inextricably entwined with that black smoke, and the black smoke was winding its way around the boy with them in tow.
"You and I will do such things, khali dadoa..."
The boy hunched forward, his arms sweeping out. He gathered the smoke in towards him, and it rose obediently, eagerly seeking the touch of his pale fingers. It wound around them, and crawled his chest.
"With that wind in your pinions we'll lay waste to this wretched world."
"Oh God..." Two of the girls had found what remained of Ben's victim. Little bits of rib-bone stuck into the air, dry and empty as straw. Her skull looked eaten away. What remained of her brain pan had scorch marks across it, winding like smoke over and through the bone. Even her hair looked like it had been sucked dry of pigment. There were little puddles of intestine pooled at the base of her spine, and her pelvis had holes burrowed through it, like some kind of crazy sea-sponge. White didn't want to look at it, but it was pretty hard to look away.
"What am I doing in this place?" One of the girls was sobbing next to the body, her eyes covered. All the girls seemed disoriented, and White could tell they were on the tipping point of sheer panic.
"Oh my God, what is this?" A redhead poked at the bones, only now beginning to put together what they had been. "Help, somebody, HELP!"
"I wanna go home!" The wail set off alarm bells in the parental center of White's mind. Time to think was running out. Time to act was almost upon him. Deep in his heart, he begged the angel to wake up.
"Father in Heaven," White offered up the prayer, "I don't know what your plan is." His fingers twitched at his sides. "I'm tryin' my hardest but I ain't seen it yet. I'm trusting you know something I don't, here..." The lump of metal against his back made him angry, especially as the urge to reach for it built. "... because I ain't sure you want to be leaving all these lives up to me."
In one massive puff, that black smoke blossomed out from the kid, and filled the room. White buried his mouth in his sweater, hoping the breath he held was clean.
"Give me what's mine!"
All the air in the room seemed to rush straight into that sound. The smoke flooded back towards the boy. White was being dragged along with it, all the human beings were. White fought to hold that breath. He squeezed his eyes shut, scrambling to keep hold of the floor. He heard wails all around him, but he couldn't open his eyes. As soon as he could stand, he straightened, and eventually he had to breathe.
"No, please!" A desperate voice, right in front of him. "Mister, please!" Little fingers curled into his sweater, pulling at his chest. "I didn't mean to hurt the angel! You gotta help me!"
"You've made your choice!"
The pressure of that voice redoubled.
"Now live with it!"
Kenneth didn't dare open his eyes. He reached out to the girl with his Sight, compassion soft across his expression. He could see her soul spilling out across her tongue, burning it away even as she tried to speak. There was nothing but pure hope, pure faith in her eyes.
"It... *mph!*" Her tongue would barely obey her. She put her hands up to her face, and bits of her fingers melted away, giving what was in them up to that escaping light. "It hurts so much!"
"Lord, please let this be your will I'm doing," White continued his prayer. His right arm reached behind him, his left curled around the girl's shoulders. "Or if it's not..." His hand sought out that hated lump of metal, slid down the cool surface of a waffled handgrip.
White spun, shoving the girl behind him. He opened his eyes, and brought the gun up with both hands, and fired. He wasn't ready for the kick. The gun leapt up and nearly hit him in the face. He staggered back a step, a high-pitched whine singing in his ears. Something seemed to smack into the boy's chest, and a fine spray of blood hit the air. The boy's shoulder jerked back, and he twisted in place. The smoke stopped moving, and faded into thin air.
The boy straightened. Those little rims of green at the tops of his eyes seemed to fix on White. The boy fingered a pale, dry hole in his chest, right over the child's collapsed heart.
"Unhhh..." came the moan from behind him. "I should have seen it."
So the angel wasn't dead. That was a comfort. White kept his weapon raised, the girl huddled behind him. He couldn't look down, couldn't look back, couldn't look anywhere but the boy. There were piles of ash everywhere, hollowed and broken bodies, and if he looked at them he didn't think he could hold on to the gun. The boy advanced, slowly but inexorably, rocking from foot to foot as he stalked across the floor.
"Humans know only this reality," Nathan was muttering. "They believe in it, they belong." A soft clatter of plaster and drywall, and a some scrapes against the carpet-- Nathan was trying to get up off the floor. "Perfect..." he was struggling with every word. "Perfect conduits. They wouldn't resist-- anything!"
There was something wrong with the angel's voice. It was flat, with a single tenor. Something had been lost from it. Something important was gone.
"He can pour energy through them and lose almost none of it in transition." White did not reply. He kept edging back, backing the girl away from both the angel and the boy. Nathan sounded like he was trying to explain it to himself more than anything. He couldn't count on the angel for any help in this condition. White didn't even want to think of what that creature might have done.
"He can act on the physical as freely as upon the spirit." Nathan's words sounded so hollow. White looked over his shoulder. Nathan's head was down, his bangs fallen over his eyes. What White could see of his face was almost without expression. There were cloudy tears cutting channels through the plaster dust on Nathan's cheek.
"They don't know how to fight it," Nathan's voice broke, and he stumbled over the words. "they're not built to withstand it! He uses souls like.. like..." Nathan's voice rose, agony twisting the sound, "LIKE AMMUNITION!"
White inched further. The girl was clinging to him, but she hadn't said a word. At least she was alive. Come on, his heart begged the angel. Get up. Get me out of this.
"I can't fight him." Nathan had dragged himself up against the wall, and he sounded broken. "How could I, knowing the cost." His voice skipped in his throat, like the words were getting lodged there. "Every attack drawing a counterattack-- and destroying an eternal piece of the divine." Nathan coughed, and drew his knees in close to his chest. His long arms wrapped around his knees, and he curled in on himself. "This is a problem for wiser and clearer minds."
The child continued to advance, and White was running out of room to back away. Nathan shook his head violently, and cried out-- "JUST SHOOT HIM, WHITE!"
White shot again. Another bullet sunk, unresisted, through Ben's chest. A small spray of blood sent a fine, sweet mist into the air. White was so close to the boy, the air in the tiny room so unsettled, that the mist wafted past him like sea spray. It was soaked in something bright, an energy that blinded his Sight. White wiped his face on his sweater sleeve, and tried to back further away.
"Can't make him understand--" Nathan muttered.
And just like that, White was out of room. The girl bumped against the wall, then into him, and there was nowhere else to go.
"Cut that out!"
The boy's hand latched onto his, wrenching his wrist until he let go of the gun. Behind him, the girl screamed-- an inchoate sound that barely seemed human. The boy wouldn't let go of White, and the angel was still just muttering.
"Decisions are so very simple for humanity--" Nathan grumbled, "-- because they don't make many of them. The good guy won't take the kill shot. Everything works out in the end." Nathan shook his head, pulling his knees in tighter.
"Nobody cares about the cost of kindness," Nathan complained bitterly, "the selfishness of wanting to feel righteous. Sometimes being able to live with yourself can mean others don't get to live at all." Nathan's voice got louder, his temper rising. "Heroism isn't as simple as a beating heart--"
Nathan's voice stopped abruptly. White looked over at the angel, deeply worried now. But Nathan's head had lifted suddenly, and he'd let go of his knees.
"Wait a minute!" Nathan blinked, once, twice. "That's it! It really IS that simple, isn't it!"
"I gave you your chance in the park!"
The boy's fist connected with White's chest, and all the air rushed out of him. White struggled for air, but his ribs refused to expand.
"You should have taken it!"
White doubled over, and the child caught him by the face. The boy's hand clamped over his mouth and nose. White struggled, but he couldn't pull free. With one hand, this little boy held him utterly helpless.
"If you'd listened to those words when you wife said them, you wouldn't be apart!"
The child's features were twisted in hate. His wife's words, White thought. His wife's anger at his faith in the face of all the suffering their family had been through. It's as if having something to believe is more important than it being true. That's what she'd said, when she was exasperated because the world had let her down.
"You wouldn't be dying here today!"
Everybody dies, White thought. Today's as good a day as any. He looked at the child's twisted features, and all he could feel was compassion. The boy was just as helpless. Nothing about the kid who'd spoken to him in the park was here speaking to him now. He knew that from the depths of his soul.
Nathan was standing now, though he still leaned on the wall for support. His head was down, and his eyes were closed as he called to the boy.
"Oh, you must know better than that by now!"
There was frustration in that unearthly snarl. The empty child held White, but turned his attention to Nathan. His hand slipped a little, just enough. Kenneth White forced precious air past those dead-cold fingers and into his aching lungs.
"It's true," Nathan said quietly. A stillness seemed to have come over him, and it was reflected in that voice. A single, frail voice that stretched across the room, seeking the child out gently. "I know you can't hear me, Ben," Nathan confessed. "Looking at your eyes, and the twisting of your features, it's clear he's using all the higher brain function you have." There was so much compassion in the words. "Not even bothering to use your senses, shutting you away. You can't fight it."
"But before I can do what I must, there are things I need to say to you." Nathan slid himself further up the wall, his head still hanging low. His voice grew warmer, fonder with every word. "You see, I told myself I spared you because you begged me to. I told myself a lot of things." Nathan pushed himself away from the wall, and wobbled, trying to stand on his own. "It's not like me at all, to lose sight of the truth that way."
Nathan put a slender hand back to the wall, steadying himself carefully. "Not like me to hide in a life's ability to offer me shelter from hard truths and harder decisions."
Nathan took an unsteady step towards Ben. "I've said it before, but not for the right reasons." He lifted his head. His eyes were pools of black, rimmed with a thin ring of bright blue. White had never seen an angel with eyes this way, wide and open to the world.
"How weak! How contemptible! How--"
"Human?" Nathan slumped forward, like his head was too heavy for him to keep his body straight. He stayed on his feet, but his knees gave a little, his footing still unsteady. "That really bothers you, doesn't it?"
Nathan staggered towards Ben, one step, then another. "You should have just killed him," he said, his voice calm and steady despite the wobble in his lanky frame. "Do it now, if you can."
Nathan collapsed to one knee. He had made it as far as one of the bodies, a hollowed-out pile of rag and bone that had once been a teenaged girl. "You know." Nathan's voice had a hard ring of finality to it, there was no room for argument. "I know you were listening. He knows our ways. His soul won't surrender itself this way." Nathan put a hand over the corpse, as though hesitant to touch it. "And even if you ripped it from him, it would be useless to you. All that remains is to end his fragile life."
"Unless--" Nathan shook his head, sadly, and let his hand drop to the girl's ruined knee. "I kept wondering, why I couldn't sense you. What I felt when I met you, that presence." Nathan clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, a light tut-tut at himself. "I've allowed myself to be misled, and blinded by my anger. Perhaps if I were someone else, that might be hard to admit."
Nathan looked up at Ben, and those wide dark eyes sought out the child's. There was something almost innocent in Nathan's eyes, when they were opened that way. There was something pleading in their darkness.
"I'm supposed to be led around that way, am I not? By anger, reacting to my failures and frustration." His voice tightened, and he turned his eyes down again. "And all the while supplying you with my spirit so you never have to show me your own!"
Nathan took a long breath, and steadied himself again. "Somehow, you know me." He looked up at Ben, his eyes half-lidded and full of pain. "Better than I know myself." He took another breath, long and shuddering, and let it out slowly. "So you must know how hard I've worked to put the memory of flesh behind me. So even now, when I know your plan, you know I still want to run from this."
Nathan's voice dropped, but White could still hear him. "Run from the child ripped from its life, from the mind that closes over like dark water." Nathan's fingers curled into the pile of human wreckage, clasping tight around something beneath the rags. "It leaves me lost to myself, filled with doubt, seeing nothing but shadows. I can't get near my power--"
Nathan swept up from the body, crossing the distance in two wide steps.
"AND NEITHER CAN YOU!"
He brought the girl's femur up across his chest. It connected with the side of Ben's head, sending a solid *CRACK* through the air. Ben's hands dropped, and White fell free. Nathan whipped the bone across Ben's face twice more, but each successive knock to the child's temples sounded stranger, and carried less force.
The boy caught the femur between two fingers, and twisted. The bone gave way with a hollow snap. Splinters flew harmlessly aside. Nathan squeezed his eyes shut, and fought to keep his feet.
The creature's voice turned musical, singing merrily to Nathan as he swung.
"Should have known it from the bo-dies..."
The creature was taunting him, but Nathan just kept swinging. He lunged, driving the broken end of the bone into Ben's chest. It sank in with a sullen squish, driving the sweatshirt into Ben's torso without resistance. Nathan gritted his teeth, and his darkened eyes went wide. "What?" he hissed.
"Getting the picture yet?"
The hollow boy smirked. He wound ashen fingers into the front of his sweater. One quick jerk and the front of the sweater tore away. The boy's collapsed chest was suddenly exposed. Shattered ribs stuck out in odd directions, and the boy's heart hung useless behind two shrivelled, dead lungs.
The boy's grin grew wider, his face lighting up with unholy triumph.
"Fighting me like a man will get you nowhere. I am so far beyond the reach and rule of mankind. You can't win. Even my little puppets are too much for--"
Nathan seized the boy's throat with both hands. He bore the child to the ground, never letting up the pressure. The back of Ben's head hit the thin carpet, all of Nathan's weight coming down on the blow. He yanked the boy's neck up, and whipped Ben's head back down against the floor. Again and again, Nathan brought the child's skull down as hard as he could. Whack, whack, and then crunch, crunch, until the carpet was soggy and the angel was exhausted. He drew shaking hands away from the boy, sticky with the child's blood. Little wet lumps of red and black oozed from Ben's scalp, clumping his hair and seeping into the floor.
Nathan rose slowly, still unsteady. He wiped his hands on his shirt, and then wiped his face with his hands. When he finally took his hands from his face, they were trembling. His pupils were still dark and wide, and his eyes stared somewhere far away.
Kenneth averted his eyes. He ran to Ben's body as soon as Nathan left it, and laid hands on the boy. The child was utterly still. White could see through the boy's open chest, past fragments of shattered spine, to the sweatshirt covering Ben's back. That's all that was left, White told himself. Meat and bone. There was nothing left of the creature that had held White helpless. Without the evil pulling his strings, Ben's face was peaceful-- angelic, White would have said once. Before he knew what the face of an angel really was.
"Is it over?" he breathed.
"I can't tell, the way I am now." Nathan started taking slow, deliberate steps toward the door. "Make sure."
White brushed unruly locks of red-brown hair away from Ben's face. There were tears on Ben's cheeks, but they were mixed with plaster dust. White looked at the angel's back, and when he spoke, his voice was hushed.
"He still looks like a little boy."
"Find the gun." Nathan's voice grew harsh, and cold, "Pulp its skull."
White closed his eyes, and bowed his head. He placed his hand on Ben's, and squeezed gently. So small, those fingers, and so very cold.
"I'll... I'll try."