Rahab sidled up to where the hallway met the stairs, keeping his back against the wall. Something big had gone on downstairs, that was a fact. He wasn't sure who was throwing what, but some big spiritual weight had been tossed around. Big like he hadn't seen since the War.
When the hollow boy had gotten to the enemy first, Rahab's heart had just about dropped through the floor-- his plans to intercept the enforcer and tip Michael's army off were ruined. The only thing left was to cover Amib's exit, and then make his own. The kid's ridiculous demands slowed them all down, so Rahab ended up staying through the showdown. And he was so glad he had.
Against all odds, the guy had survived. Michael's bruiser was going to be a challenge. Rahab licked his lips, savoring every moment of this anticipation. There were better places to ambush the guy, but Rahab wasn't much for ambush anyhow. He wanted to lay eyes on the foe, to catch a glimpse of his wings. He wanted to know what could take a monster like that kid down.
Kira tugged at Rahab's elbow, trying to drag him back into the hall. Rahab shook her off him. He edged closer to the stairwell.
The last of the common room lights went out. Rahab could hear a soft scraping, then a sharp 'crick!'. Scavengers, Rahab thought. Probably the first of many. After all the fireworks around here, the mission wasn't going to be safe for long.
Something small and furry scuttled away, fading into the dark. It left the husk of a half-eaten lightbulb behind. The shadow of a man crossed the doorway, and Rahab scowled. That's all it was. A man. What the hell?
He recognized this ponytail guy, but the person approaching the stairs wasn't even a pale shadow of what the kid made him out to be. His eyes were wide and dark, grasping at the shadows like any monkey's would. The guy could barely keep his feet, and on top of all that, Ponytail was talking to himself.
"I..." The guy placed an unsteady foot on the first step. "I am myself."
Rahab made a small, disgusted noise, and receded back into the hall.
"The rest is temporary," The guy's voice kept splitting and fading. So there was an angel in there, but it was struggling with the monkey suit he walked around in. "Meaningless." Fighting his humanity. For fuck's sake. The guy'd shot his entire wad on the monster, and there was no fight left in him. Disappointed, Rahab watched the guy sag against the banister.
"I am myself," the guy slurred. "I am..." He collapsed onto the stairs. His hand on the banister was the only thing keeping him from tumbling all the way down to the common room. "I'm so tired."
"What the hell is this?" Rahab seethed, pulling Kira into one of the abandoned rooms along the hall. He thought back to the kid. It made no sense, to use something like this to scare Amib when the kid could do so much to them all on his own. "He can't be bluffing," Rahab murmured. Yet here it was-- this guy was nothing. "Huh."
"What do you mean?" Kira edged up behind him, but she knew better than to try to touch him again. He could feel her wanting to-- he couldn't help feeling it when an Aspect wanted his attention.
"It makes no sense, yet--" Rahab shrugged, turning his back to the stairwell. "This guy's pathetic. This is no enforcer."
"Rahab, wait-- you're not seeing him clearly. Let me show you." Kira closed her eyes, and she lashed out, latching onto Rahab's arm. Rahab felt Kira's perceptions close over his. He slid into her touch, and the world swam around him. A white fog gathered in front of his eyes. Dizzy, he turned his head, and looked back down the hallway.
Simple plates of plain, light armor. A sigil on the front, so faint it could barely be seen. Little trims of violet and blue, and behind them, creamy golden down. Big, solid struts fringed in caramel and sandy brown. Those wings had seen better days, but they were still strong. They had slashes in them, vicious cuts that took a steel nerve to deliver. Those cuts were so deep, they hadn't even stopped weeping angelic blood, though fresh feathers had long since started emerging around them. Rahab had seen handiwork like that before.
Then he caught sight of something, little blue spots edging the forward edge of the guy's wings. They were like cobalt stars, with little teal novas in their center, two braces of three on each wing. They burned through the fog Kira had cast over Rahab's mind, they seared right through everything. They cut to the heart of the fallen angel within.
Holy FUCK! He didn't need to speak to Kira aloud, he knew she could hear him. You've got to be kidding me! Kira, do you have any idea who this is? He didn't wait for her to respond. That's the Makhvet himself!
No response. Not even recognition. She was blank as always, her concentration supposedly on showing him what she saw. But unspoken words kept spilling across their connection, like she was pumping them right out of him. That's the fourteenth of the twenty-two Spoken Virtues, he yielded up to her, That gutless wonder embodies every single reason I took the other side in the War.
An old bitterness welled up in him, stronger and stronger the clearer those wings became. Herald and serve, he thought bitterly, Don't touch, watch it all circle the fucking bowl! A bitter taste rose up in his throat, and he wanted to spit-- but as long as Kira had her hold on him, his body belonged to her. He couldn't move unless she let him.
I'd be home right now if their noncommittal bullshit hadn't torn heaven apart. His skin felt unbearably hot, the hate igniting behind his eyes. Memories welled up like blood to a fresh wound, and he yielded them over to Kira. But I owe him a more personal retribution. He showed her the memory, and she traded her perceptions for his own.
He felt Kira shiver, through a touch that felt vague and far away, as she watched him stalk up to the Gates. His stormy gray wings were lighter then, but they were still flecked in white, red, and ashen black. His armor was heavy, and his face determined. He made his demands, but the Legion of the Gate remained impassive. They ignored him. Only the Makhvet even acknowledged him. The Makhvet stepped forward, trying to explain why they wouldn't step into the battle, wouldn't act to stop it until it reached their precious monuments. It was bullshit, and Rahab challenged it. In a fit of temper, he struck at the Makhvet, and the two came to blows.
He never fought me honestly. Rahab's bitterness clouded everything, bathing the memory in a crimson haze. He remembered the Makhvet parrying him, slipping behind him and shoving the butt of his scythe's shaft between Rahab's wings. The sudden shock made Rahab's wings flare out, flutter helplessly for a moment until Rahab could recover. It wasn't that I lost.
He'd seen the Makhvet fight, when the Three Legions first gathered their recruits and carved paths into Heaven's innermost places. He'd seen the determined sweep of that scythe, and the way it cut spirits down before the blade. But the Makhvet didn't respect him enough to use the blade at all. He ducked, and he parried. All Rahab got from him was the shaft.
Those twenty-two are princes, unfathomably strong, Rahab started to pull back from the memory, tired of watching his humiliation replayed. I didn't expect to win. I expected him to fight me as I deserved. Even the least of us is OWED that much.
I'll never forgive him for that. Rahab pried Kira's weary fingers off his arm. She'd get her strength back soon enough, or draw it off him, and he didn't want her forcing him to replay the end of that fight. It was bad enough he kept seeing after-images of that sculpted, regal face, and the sapphire-ringed eyes cast down on him-- half-lidded but still throwing a dim turquoise glow.
"The way he looked at me," Rahab growled, barely audible. The words kept spilling, and he ground his teeth against Kira's residual influence. Her presence still clung to him, though he ducked a second touch. His eyes were awash in angry red light, aflame from his wounded spirit. "As if I were something to be pitied."
Rahab shook his head, dislodging himself from the memory. He had to think of the present. He felt the rustle of his wings, and pulled his defenses to the surface. The last of Kira's influence finally ebbed away.
"We've been set up." Rahab's fingers curled around the Archer's weapon. No way all this was a coincidence. Credulity simply wouldn't stretch that far. "Someone brought us together." He grabbed Kira roughly, and started dragging her towards the window.
"What--?" Kira resisted a little, which only made Rahab pull her harder.
"I'll not waste my vengeance on foiling some stupid plan," Rahab seethed. He'd been waiting far, far too long, and this wasn't the fight he'd been waiting for. "Out the window," he shoved her ahead of him. "Let's go."
The room was empty when Nathan reached it. His eyes had given up their darkness. The light of his spirit filled them again, though dimmed. He could still hear the cries of a lonely, lost boy echo in the back of his thoughts, but he shut them out. He wiped strands of blonde out of his eyes, and blinked them. These things were temporary, he kept telling himself. He had to get beyond them.
The angelic presence he followed was strongest here. There were fresh strains of recognition and anguish in the air. He could smell faint traces of Esa in the air-- a scent he remembered, something that hinted at blood-red berries and mulled, spiced wine. But it was terribly tainted. There was a putrid edge to it, as though it had gone rotten somehow.
The scent was strongest on the bed, and in the center of the room. Nathan turned his eyes toward the freshest source. His eyes fell on a chair, set deliberately beneath a waning lamp.
"I'm too late."
The words sunk in, and the sound helped to steady him. The way his voice sounded when the spirit was in control reinforced to him everything he needed most to believe right now. It was so hard to hang on to anything, and desperately important that he try. He sank before the chair, taking a knee.
"Some part of me still feels her crying," he murmured. He reached out carefully, touching the end of a gray-black braid as though it might reach up and bite him. He would have preferred a bite to what really happened. When he touched it, he could feel her suffering. He willed her attention to turn to him, to recognize him as he reached out to her. But there was no awareness in her cries. Only suffering, spilling indiscriminately into the world.
"Not dead then--" he told himself. "But lost." Beneath the curl of braid was a Polaroid. Nathan didn't dare touch it yet. "All because this unworthy protector lost sight of his way."
A spasm of grief doubled him over. He curled the braid around his fingers, soaking in her pain. His heart cried out to the only place it could go, the only name that came to him in times as dark as these.
"Puavale..." he whispered hoarsely. And then the love, the trust surged up in him, "Malavai..." Nothing returned to him. No recognition, no connection. The silence settling over him proved too heavy for him to bear. "It was hard enough to fail you," he whispered, hoping against hope that his words could still reach their target somehow. "Did I have to fail her too?" His question fell into empty space. He knelt there, but no answer would ever come.
A scream cut through the silence. Nathan bolted for the stairs, but he was already too late. He'd missed the last of his chances. It would be years before anyone saw it-- but that would come too late, too. Nathan's heart raced, and a flush leapt to his skin. He took the stairs two at a time, heading for the source of that terrified voice.
The sun was in his eyes.