The invective burst from three angels at once. It shivered through the room around them, knocking tufts of mold off the walls and bits of plaster off the ceiling.
Rahab was already climbing onto the bed, mid-leap at Ben. Amib was squaring off with the child, golden light rising up to swallow what humanity was left in his eyes. Jeke, the youngest of the three, kicked away from his position at the window. The three men moved as though they had been working in formation all their lives. As one, they closed in on the boy, and the boy looked at them as though he knew them all.
A small sound, but one they should have heeded. The boy's hand went up before they could reach him. His fingers splayed out, flat, and the air fled before them. An arc of golden light reflected the shine in Amib's eyes. It streaked out beautifully, pushing everything in the room away from the boy. He sent the angels sprawling, scrambling to retake their feet.
"Have a seat."
Their bodies obeyed the boy. They dropped to their knees, heads forced low before the hollow child.
The child was empty, in and out. There was a ragged hole in his chest where Rahab's spike had been holding him up, made larger by Ben's struggling while impaled. Nothing inside the hole was stirring. That torn little heart didn't struggle to beat. The boy's lungs hung between shattered ribs like shrivelled gray-brown balloons. Everything inside the child seemed to have collapsed, or been ripped away.
The voice filling their senses was coming from everywhere, and nowhere. The boy's mouth was moving, sure, but that voice could not be his.
"Ha... that's a neat trick." Rahab kept struggling. He refused to let his head remain dropped, he kept forcing his chin up to look at the boy. "Who brought you awake so early, little friend?"
"Ohhh, are you looking for my name, Rahab?"
Power was surging all around the child, crackling and popping like bad wiring, but there was nothing to identify it. Typically Rahab would find a symbol, some sign carved by the spirit against the bindings of reality. That would let him know what he was dealing with. It was automatic, it was involuntary. But it wasn't there.
"For the pretty little symbol you should see when I exert my power in this world?"
Rahab kept fighting, his strength building moment by moment. His spirit blazed in his chest, though his companions' remained dimmed. He could feel that crimson glow rising up behind his eyes, could feel that surge of power which reminded him he belonged beyond this world. Not long now. Then he would show the boy a symbol of his own.
"I'm nothing so limited as you are. I need symbols only for specific tasks."
Rahab kept his eyes on the boy. He couldn't let them wander, not right now. He tried to find the kid's eyes, but they were rolled all the way back into his head. No way to make contact. No way to connect. Whatever this kid was, he was a tough nut to crack.
"But that's not why you're asking me, is it."
The boy flicked up his left hand, without even looking back. Behind the child, Kira nearly got yanked off her feet. The knife the Aspect held was stuck in the air. Kira pulled on it, but it was intractably lodged in place.
Kira's eyes went wide with panic. The light went out of her. As always, she sought out Rahab's eyes. He looked away from her. He didn't need to see it. He could feel her panic from where he was.
"Stop right there."
Kira froze. Even her eyes locked in place, and Rahab could feel them on him. He kept his head down, still straining against the pressure that was holding him down on his knees. Sliding one leg forward, however slightly, was a victory. A minor victory, but minor victories were the beginnings of major triumph.
"Terribly unladylike of you, dear girl."
"I can't--" Kira gasped. Her speech was slurring, like she could barely get her mouth to respond. Despite himself, Rahab sympathized with her a little. It was always hard on an Aspect when she couldn't flap her lips. "Rahab," she wailed, "I can hardly move! What has he done to me?!"
"Gather round, children."
The hollow boy's shoulders swung back, and he crooked a beckoning finger. All four angels were dragged forward, sliding along the tattered carpet. Rahab thrashed, straining hard against unseen forces that wouldn't let go. His shoulders kept dragging back, pulling his arms behind him. His wrists drew together, shoved into the small of his back. He stared at Ben balefully, willing the fire in his heart to rise up and fill him. He could barely reach that part of him, like he was cut off from his own spirit. Power flickered to the surface in embers, defying the force that held him there. In all his eternal life, he was certain he'd never been pushed around this way before. He wasn't going to put up with it for long.
"It's time you knew your place in this world. From now on you serve me. I am the only one who can protect you."
Amib's bowed head caught the corner of Rahab's peripheral vision, and Rahab made a little disgusted sound in the back of his throat. The other angel wasn't even struggling. His head was bowed. Maybe he was trying to read the kid, Rahab thought. It didn't matter. Amib's submission just spurred Rahab on-- he channelled all that contempt into his fight to move.
"In return for this protection, I shall expect your oath of loyalty."
Loyalty. Like anybody got that out of Rahab, anymore. There was a time he'd believed in loyalty. He'd left that childish faith at the Gates, where it belonged. It died with all the rest of his illusions. He'd show this thing what he thought of oaths of loyalty, now.
"Do not overestimate your value to me. Anger me and I shall end your torment abruptly."
They'd see who ended who.
"Struggle all you like. It's pointless."
"Please," Rahab grinned. His eyes felt hot, and he knew they were beginning to smoulder in earnest now. He could feel the struggle warming his hands, little sparks running up and down his arms. He'd never submitted to captivity for long, and he wasn't about to start now. "You can't subdue me for long." The words helped build his momentum, so he kept them going. "Violence just builds when it's restrained. While you talk to yourself, I'm only growing stronger." The defiance felt good. It felt right. It felt pure.
The boy's head swung, sightless eyes fixing on Amib.
"I think someone is listening to me."
Amib shuddered. His head bent lower, blonde curls obscuring his face completely. Rahab ground his teeth, and threw his weight against his chest. Every thrash was moving him a little further. It wouldn't be long now. Keep talking, he thought, trying to bore holes in the kid's head with his glare. The more I hate you, the better.
"It's been hard, hasn't it... guarding her."
The kid swayed, and grabbed Seleste's chair, as though for support. Seleste's presence was so weak, Rahab had almost forgotten she was there. She was just a wisp of a thing now, so insubstantial Rahab wasn't sure she could survive without a body to hide in. Her eyes were gray, and barely showed flickers of the silvery light Amib searched for so desperately every time he looked at her.
"Watching her kill herself over and over through her victims."
"SHUT UP!" Amib wailed. He looked up, and there was quality rage in his expression. Attaboy, Rahab thought. "How dare you speak of her! Abomination!" Rahab had almost managed to pull his hands free. Every time he yanked on them, he got a little further before they dragged back. He dragged one knee forward, and leaned hard on the other.
"Speak of her?"
The hollow boy drew himself up, until he was leaning casually against her chair, and Seleste didn't even look up at him. She just kept petting the monkey laid across her lap, cradling the child and stroking that mousy brown hair. Lately it had become all about those monkey children, and Rahab put up with that because Amib had a talent for keeping things hidden. Stealth was never in Rahab's skillset, and these days, stealth was a necessity. After all Amib had done for Rahab, so what if he wanted them to round up a few abandoned girls? Not like anybody was using them anyhow.
"But I am her saviour. Her only hope."
Seleste cooed, the closest she'd come so far to acknowledging anyone was talking about her. But it wasn't for them. It was for the monkey child. She shook the monkey child a little, trying to wake the girl up. She stroked the girl's cheeks, singing urgently under her breath. It was no use. The hollow boy had a hold on the children, everyone in the room knew it. That soul was bound and beyond their reach.
"You just demonstrated your need for me, you know. That poor Aspect you hide. So brutally attacked. Even the most wretched would avenge that."
That stopped Rahab dead in his tracks. Shock drained the strength from him completely. Avenge that? Why would anyone avenge that? Rahab's mind raced, tracing back over the last few days. He'd missed something!
"But that's bullshit!" Jeke protested. The kid always spoke before thinking. "We found Esa that way." Way to go, just serve up the name while you're at it. "We SAVED her from the Harvesters!"
"Oh I know."
The boy's smirk was just insufferable. Rahab couldn't wait to tear it right off his pasty little face.
"I'm the one who lured them there."
Rahab's mind wrenched back, and he couldn't stop it. His memory unfolded like it was being played back for him.
Everybody responded when an Aspect screamed-- it didn't matter whose side they were on. Nothing was so Fallen that it could ignore that sound. They'd had to fight their way to her, through a swarm of twisted creatures. These were horrors, patchwork freaks like nothing Rahab had ever seen. In her delirium Esa wailed about the "ri'tah", like the clumsy home-stitched rag dolls little girls used to drag around. Only these toys had serious teeth. They'd been stripping down a corpse under a streetlamp, rending flesh and bone beneath its sulphurous glow.
Their only thought was getting to Esa. Something had hurt her, and hurt her bad. Each fresh scream drove them harder, they had to protect her! Rahab kicked in the door, and Amib dove past him, scooping her off the kitchen floor. Twisted creatures scattered away from her, like cockroaches when the lights came on. They'd taken pieces of her clothing, and big chunks of her hair. Rahab guarded the door. Jeke watched at the front stoop, ready to signal them when the cavalry arrived. Amib held Esa, rocking her back and forth in his arms.
"Come on," Amib had whispered, shaking Esa a little harder. "Wake up. Talk to me." But when Esa's eyes flew open, she wasn't awake. Wild light, the color of sea-foam, sprayed from her like her spirit was leaking out. She was bleeding away into the world around her. Amib clamped a hand over her eyes. He sang softly to her, but she wouldn't calm down.
"No one's come for her," Rahab muttered. It wasn't right. He didn't like it. People should have been swarming to this place by now, drawn by her cries. Big shiny soldiers from the Gates, or at least from Michael's army, should have stormed up the steps-- forcing Rahab and the other fallen angels to scatter back into shadow where they belonged.
"We can't leave her here," Jeke barked. "They're getting bolder." The creatures had almost finished with the corpse, and they were starting to pay more attention to the house now. So these were Harvesters, Rahab decided. These were the big new players in town. He grinned. He'd always kind of hoped their reputation was deserved. His heart skipped a happy beat-- it really looked like they might be worth the hype.
"Rahab, look!" Amib's gasp drew Rahab's attention away from the threat. He leaned back into the house. Amib had turned Esa's forearm up. There were bites on her forearm. They oozed something deep and crimson, and she wept black fluid around the wound. Esa's spirit seemed to flee away from it, the light in her growing dim and cold. She babbled nonsense, struggling to free her arm from Amib's grip. Her struggle just made the wound weep more.
Rahab would never forget that smell. It burned in the back of his throat, and stung his eyes. It haunted his mind even now. There was something moving under that putrid scent, something spiritual that made Rahab step back. Something cold and primal gripped his spirit, and shook him to the core.
Rahab started to feel heat in his fingertips, and they began to blister. He caught a familiar scent-- it made him think of Halloween, or a night under the harvest moon. Burning leaves, autumn spices, and something darker beneath it. It made him think of things deep and black, prowling hunger beneath the stir of impatient wings. Then the smell of his smouldering fingertips mixed in with it, and Rahab put the picture together.
"We have to get out of here," Rahab forced his voice to stay even. He kept his eyes on Esa, kept reminding himself, he was here to help her. But he drove every word home with emphasis, and left his mind wide open for Amib to read. "Right. Bloody. Now."
Amib's eyes went to Rahab's, and Rahab could feel his friend poking around behind them. Amib's eyes went wide, and Rahab shook his head. "Slow and calm. We're here to help." Amib nodded. Rahab helped him lift Esa, and they carried the senseless Aspect out of the house. Rahab didn't look down at his hands until they were clear of the stoop. He let out a relieved breath. The blisters were gone.
Rahab tore his attention back to the present. Being violated that way made him furious, and stirred his spirit back into action. He could feel its fire churning back up to the surface. Come on, he seethed, come on.
"Come off it." Rahab's voice trembled, and that only pissed him off more. "This is ridiculous." He steadied himself, and clenched his fists behind his back. "You expect us to believe you orchestrated all this just to trap a band of Marat?"
"Not even the whole band."
Rahab's eyes whipped back to Amib. Those delicate shoulders were sagging now, and all the fight had drained out of his face. Rahab turned away. He couldn't see the guy like that. Not after everything...
"You see... Your companion has a rare talent. His ability to penetrate the living minds of others is useful to me. It would shorten many of my tasks."
No. No way. This thing was lying, someone with Amib's talents had to see that. If not through his own eyes, then maybe...
The sound of that name just kept going, and split into so many threads. Rahab felt them slipping in and out of Creation with ease. They filled Rahab's senses, and choked the voice out of him. His limbs went numb and dead. He stopped struggling. He couldn't even drop to the floor. He was held firmly in place. Even his thoughts felt mired down, stuck in some kind of undertow. Whatever this was, it wasn't restraint. Rahab couldn't get enough of a grasp on it to even figure out what to fight.
"Your lover is deteriorating. Her sense of herself returns only when it rises to punish the image of her sins in these girls."
So what, Rahab wanted to scream. It works for her! What else are monkeys good for! But he couldn't even reach that soundless connection he and Amib shared. He couldn't even lift his head to look back at the guy.
"Her name fades from her, and even you cannot hold onto it. Her appetite for pain escalates, and can no longer be hidden."
The pain coming off Amib was palpable. Even the building seemed to ache with him, rotten boards groaning under sympathetic burdens. Seleste babbled nonsense at the girl in her lap, little snippets of Malakhrit spilling out amongst chopped-up syllables. If she knew what was going on, she didn't care.
"Fate is already at your door."
"He's right." Amib's voice was heavy. It stank of defeat. "Someone is coming for us-- a heart without mercy."
"I see them too. The timing is almost poetry, isn't it?"
Acrid smoke wound out of those words, and stung Rahab's eyes until they closed. Through the murk he could see some tall skinny blonde, shoving a gun at a human tagalong. The one human being in this city who didn't want a gun, apparently, because the guy handled it like it was radioactive.
"Now remember," the blonde was telling him, "only a head shot will take him down."
There was something familiar about the blonde, but Rahab couldn't put a finger on it. The guy wore a hand-stitched tunic, blood red, with a big gray crane down the left side, its head curled around his heart. Nice. Give a guy a target. He had some kind of blue tassels stuck in his hair, and long hair pulled up in a ponytail. Rahab hated ponytail guys with a passion. It'd be a pleasure to take this one down.
"The rest of the body doesn't matter," the guy was lecturing, "It needs the brain." He could have meant any of them. Anything spiritual needed a brain to do any real work in this world.
"Where the hell did you get a gun?" Homeboy in a turtleneck just had to ask questions.
"Off a dead man who shot me. Are you listening?"
"Yeah, but--" Yeah, but, yeah but, wasn't that just like a monkey.
"He's not vulnerable to pain, but surprise can sometimes unseat him."
"I'll do it." Amib's voice was weak, broken. The sound cleared Rahab's head, and made the bile rise up in the back of his throat. "I'll serve you." Rahab was glad he couldn't see the guy, now. "I'll do anything," Amib whispered raggedly, "So long as-- she can be comforted."
"Ahh. You see?"
The boy lurched away from Seleste, and suddenly the pressure went off Rahab's limbs. He let his hands drop, but he didn't get up. He rocked forward. He didn't even need to lift his head. Rahab could see Amib out of the corner of one eye, blonde hair falling over the guy's face. Amib was still on his knees, he didn't even bother to bring his arms from behind his back. Everything about his posture oozed defeat.
"Now he understands. He chooses her."
The hollow boy put a hand on Amib's shoulder, putting his face next to the angel's.
"The one who comes would never kill an Aspect."
That hollow voice was practically purring now, a sublime pleasure winding through it and sending goosebumps up Rahab's neck.
"He'll do worse-- bind her power."
A choked half-sob escaped Amib, and he pitched even further forward.
"Without it she loses the ability to delude her victims, and herself."
That finished him. Shame, or maybe grief, bore Amib to the ground. Probably both. He put his arms forward, a posture of supplication that made Rahab's blood boil. And the hollow boy kept that hand on that fallen shoulder, still purring those viciously sibilant words.
"And so love conquers all-- even the last of his convictions."
The hollow boy put his face down on top of Amib's head, as if to bless him with a kiss. But his lips opened, and he whispered-- a sound so tender, it was agonizing to hear.
"Now, my friend-- You are well and truly fallen."
Rahab closed his eyes.
"The deal is struck."
The hollow boy stood casually, and lifted two fingers in a mockery of blessing.
"I accept your terms, Amib. We are done here."
"YOU CAN'T HAVE THEM!" Jeke's wail came from the bottom of his wretched spirit. Everything about the kid was strained to the limit. Every muscle was taut, every tendon stretched visibly over quaking bones. The fallen soldier in him practically shoved its way through, his sigil blazing orange between emptied eyes. "YOU DEAL WITH ME!"
Jeke clenched his right hand, the other helping him scramble to his feet. Thick orange smoke emerged from between curled fingertips, and started curling around itself, until a ropy tail began to follow his fist. Rahab had seen the kid use this weapon before, but never in closed spaces. He grabbed Kira, and dragged her by the arm. He hauled her out into the hall. Whatever Jeke was doing, he was doing it alone. Rahab took shelter behind the door, not that it would help once the kid got going. He shoved Kira further back, pointing her down the hall.
"DIE, YOU LITTLE SHIT!" Jeke had a good trail of steam going now, and there was a crackling, hissing sound following it. Everywhere it touched, it corroded Awas away, making bare spots in the carpet and eating holes in the floorboards. Maybe they couldn't fight this thing's spirit, but the body was vulnerable enough. Jeke charged at the hollow boy, whipping his hand forward.
The boy traced a lazy arc in the air, and where he did so, a wisp of crimson smoke started following his fingertip. Another arc of golden light, like the one he'd used to push them back, surrounded the boy. That sickly red smoke started twisting into a rope similar to Jeke's. When the two trails met, they wound together. Crimson snaked around orange, until the orange disappeared. The trail of smoke turned back on Jeke, and wrapped around his body.
"WHAT?" Jeke howled, straight from the spirit. His true voice shook the boards nailed across the windows, and sent plaster raining down from the ceiling. "BUT... BUT HOW?" Ropy crimson trails wound tighter and tighter around his body, and his shirt hissed away. They bit deeper, stripping the flesh off his chest. Their curls got wider, as though adding what they consumed to the trail.
And then the hijacked weapon wasn't eating mere flesh anymore. It was achieving something Jeke had never been able to do with it-- it was consuming spirit. As Jeke's body succumbed, the light of his spirit began streaking away from the onslaught, but it was far too late for anything substantial to escape. He never even got his wings unfurled, never got his defenses into play. His stripped skull flew wide, a soundless scream nothing would ever hear. The last glints of his spirit gave way, and there was nothing left to protect what remained of his flesh. A thin veil of ash drifted softly to the floor, piling at the hollow boy's feet.
Rahab fought to catch his breath. He pulled back, putting his back flat against the wall. His eyes reached heavenward, and his body shook like someone had put a million volts through it.
"I am through playing games!"