"You wanted to see me?"
Gabriel's highest-ranked angel glanced up from a pile of celestial paperwork, and did a poor job of pretending he hadn't expected her. "Aziel. Good of you to come so promptly."
"Hmm." She was insolent, as always, wretched creature. She slid into the room, liquid shadow with eyes like hot coals, and paused in front of his desk. He thought, and not for the first time, that she moved more like an Ofanite than one if his choir. Strange, mad creature.
He flexed his great dark wings irritably. "Aziel, I have an assignment for you." She tilted her head at him curiously, still refusing to bow or acknowledge his rank in any way...never had. They were of an age, and she might have easily been so favored by Gabriel...and had not been, had been left to a lower distinction, and more earthside work. He was sure she resented that.
"Well...what, then?" She folded shadowy arms over her chest, eclipsing the oath chains under darkness. She had only four, a pitiably small number for an angel her age; Soldekai himself had eight. He had asked her, repeatedly, if she might not take more oaths...and she had told him she hated to be 'limited.' Limited. A Malakite. Really. But Gabriel had said, Leave her be, Soldekai. She is useful as she is. And he had...mostly.
"Janus needs the loan of a Malakite. I have chosen you."
"The Wind has Malakim, has he not? Why me?"
Soldekai frowned, and resisted the urge to stand up and speak into her face. He steepled his fingers carefully. "There have been deaths among his angels. One Mercurian is still in Trauma. The Ofanite's heart shattered outright. His Malakim are engaged elsewhere, and he needs a bit of help." And because Janus was Janus, Gabriel had agreed to loan him a Malakite, to be chosen at Soldekai's discretion.
"Nasty demon, then, eh?" Her eyes lit with Malakim fanaticism. Soldekai empathized.
"That's our guess. Janus has a new Malakite he'd like you to take along. His name is Ashur, and he's never been earthside."
"A baby? I'm a training angel now, eh?" She did not shout, which he had expected; she smiled rather like she'd been offered a Balseraph's heart in a soufflé. "Janus must be hard up if he asked for me."
"He didn't. I volunteered you."
The smile faded, disappeared. "Of course you did."
They studied each other, a pair of old Malakim, who had been rivals and allies both their whole existences. Mostly the former, lately, and Soldekai regretted that...but when Gabriel had stormed out of heaven after that Islam business, something in Aziel had snapped, too, and she was not who she had been.
"Must you ever assume the worst of me? No, don't answer that. I'm not punishing you, Aziel. You are...very effective." And unconventional. And occasionally, seriously dissonant, which Gabriel ever forgave her, for reasons Soldekai could not fathom. God Himself protect them if Dominic or Laurence came upon her in one of those phases....
"So are you, Chamberlain." She did bow then, stiffly and formally and not at all sincerely. She turned, then, spread her flickering dark wings, and left him.
Soldekai sighed again, and watched her go, and pitied the poor Malakite of Janus.
She was old. That was his first impression of her: that she was slightly mad was the second.
She swept into the Grove utterly unaffected by the ever-present and capricious wind; the darkness at her back rippled with an underlying movement of its own. Eyes, the color of embers just before they become ashes, had fixed on him with precision, and she looked to neither side as she approached.
He held his ground, and waited, and wondered at the wisdom of this pairing. His fingers crawled to his throat, twiddled unconsciously with the chains there: only two, thin links of crystal and silver -- he was that young. She wore four, the minimum proper number -- hammered links of red gold, hanging in increasing length and width. The tiniest looked like gossamer threads, so tight he could see the links biting into the smooth darkness of her throat.
She stopped in front of him, stared both at and through him. He stared back, at the sharpness of her, and the darkness, and the subtle gleam that reminded him of fire on the edges of a blade.
He drew himself up, flexed his great black wings, and bowed his head. "Ashur, Servitor of Wind," he announced.
No sound was forthcoming, and he at last ventured a glance. She was still studying him, her head tilted to one side now.
"Hmm," she said finally. "Ashur." She tasted the name, eyes briefly unfocused beyond him. "Ashur." Refocus, then, bright and hot as her Word. "I resent being assigned a partner, particularly an untried Wind-chaser, but my orders were quite clear." She ducked her head, just barely an acknowledgment, quite within the boundaries of rude. "Aziel, Vassal of Fire."
He stared at her, shocked by the rudeness. Who did she believe she was, anyway, this Virtue who served a mad Archangel? And what had he done so wrong that Janus would pair him with her for his first trip earthside? The only training she might give him, he thought, was lessons in madness. Anger coiled. He deserved none of her abuse, certainly. He would never deserve it! He was Malakim, incorruptible, smiter of demons, and dammit!...she was an older, higher ranking angel, and all of those things he wanted to be, however rude she was. Janus believed Ashur could learn from her, and so he would. He gathered the anger back into himself, and forced his face to blandness.
She was watching him narrowly. "Tell me you're going to take that from me, Ashur-of-the-Wind, and I really will question your fitness to be a Virtue. Perhaps you've been fledged to the wrong Choir. I see you as...oh, an Elohite, maybe."
He jaws began to ache. What else shall I do, Vassal of Fire? Our Superiors command us to work together, and so we shall. And then, because she really had made him angry, "I don't have to like you, Aziel of Fire. I do have to work with you, and the answer for your rudeness will wait until we've finished." He lifted his chin, just a little: thrust, and parry. He was overmatched, but she needn't know how much.
She blinked, a quick eclipse of her ember-dark eyes. "Oh. Well then. Until later." The menace recoiled, and a flickering joviality replaced it. "I just love a show of Fire from the Wind. Wind fans flames, you know," she added from the edges of her mouth.
How to answer that? Or the sudden swing of moods? Mad, the whole lot of them. He didn't, just tried a smile of his own, and hoped it looked menacing, or self-assured, or anything but the truth. An Elohite of Wind glanced over at them, attracted by the blast of his emotions, and Ashur let the smile fade. Aziel seemed oblivious.
"Well, Ashur, shall we go?" She offered him an arm; when he did not move, she took his and looped it though her own. This put him in uncomfortable proximity to someone he'd decided was dangerous on all levels, and Sisera actually began moving toward them, distant concern on her face.
Aziel glanced over him, saw the approaching Elohite. Her grin slipped toward the feral. "Is this a rescue party I see approaching? Don't panic, Ashur. I don't bite. Lesson one: Aziel is quite toothless. Lesson Two: fear is to be faced. We feel it, all of us. But we do not run away from it." That, a Michaeline statement from Fire. She drew in to sudden stillness, a single inert darkness in a Grove which always moved. She released his arm, turn him with a subtle pressure on his arm until their eyes locked, palest grey to ember-dark. He was startled to realize they were of a height. "I mean to unsettle you." Gravely now, and Ashur would swear -- absolutely sane. "I mean to challenge you. I will never hurt you, Ashur of the Wind. You need never fear me."
And before he could answer, she shot a bright mad glance past his shoulder at the Elohite. "Don't worry, dear. No harm will come to him. Promise." She leaned in, whispered conspiratorially, "She likes you, I'll bet." And stepped back, all restless motion beneath the apparent calm. "Ready for your first experience earthside?"
Nothing could have prepared him.
It rained. It smelled. People threw offal into the street, and walked upon it. Beggars cried for handouts, children and dogs and chickens rushed through the muddy lanes. And the rain, which reduced dirt streets to avenues of mud, never ceased.
He wished for Wind to blow the air clean, blow the streets clean, and blow the damned rain away.
"Not what you'd hoped, is it?" She leaned against a building as if holding it upright; given its painful tilt, she may have been. The sooty woolen cloak hooded her features; strands of bright hair escaped, encountered the water, and turned dark and dripping. For once she seemed serene.
"It's...not Heaven," he said lamely. "It's...flawed." He gestured, one lean hand escaping the folds of his own rank and itching cloak. "They...aren't what I thought humans would be."
"They are flawed. They suffer, and they die...but they laugh, and they sing, and they know joy..." Serenity became melancholy of a sudden. "They are so, so fragile, Ashur. All of them."
He watched, said nothing. A mother came down the street with a child in one arm, trying to hold her hood up with one hand and becoming wet for her troubles.
"Resonate her," Aziel commanded softly. "Feel her soul, Ashur, and tell me what you see."
He did as bidden. Child/Annie, hers to love/protect... she did not know the father's name. She had fed a starving kitten precious milk, and said cruel things to her sister, who had taken her in when no one else would.
Ashur blinked. "Oh."
"Does she deserve to die?" The voice didn't change.
"What? No. No." He frowned, watched the woman pass him in the street, murmuring to her child. And, because he really didn't know.... "Does she?"
"No. You're right. She's basically a decent person."
"She behaved with dishonor, having that baby."
Aziel glanced over at him, smiled with her vessel's mouth. "Lesson Three: humans do that quite often...they require little encouragement. Babies and dishonor." And then, all melancholy and serenity and stillness gone from her: "Do you know why we are here, Ashur-who-likes-the-rulebreakers? Did your Superior tell you?" Her eyes, very dark now, still held a trace of embers.
He shook his head. "Just that one of the Ofanim died, and one of the Mercurians lost her vessel..."
Her smile this time was brittle. "Come with me." She took his arm again, and pulled him out into the rain.
She took him through the streets, through the nameless muck, to a center place. A pile of wet ashes lay there, and half-charred wood sticks, and a single fire-scarred pole with a heat blackened metal chain bolted to it. Even in the rain, he could smell the odd rank odor.
"What is it?" Something about it made his hands want to reach and grab and squeeze something yielding, something Bad.
"A stake." Her voice had dropped, came out now in a slow, soft snarl. "A place of pain and cruelty."
He kept looking, studying the whole affair; he thought he could see a fragment of bone in the ash. "Humans die here?" It seemed...unreal. Wood burned. Humans...should not.
"Are executed here." Her fingers poked into his arm like knives.
"For crimes?" Justice, he could understand...though the crime must be terrible, to merit such a death.
He frowned. "I don't understand -- are you saying people are killed here, for no reason at all?" He peered through the rain at her, this Servitor of Fire, who hated Heaven's Justice on behalf of her Mistress and might not be seeing any justice with clear eyes.
"Not no reason." Aziel turned a feral smile on him. "Imagined. Witches are burned here, my innocent Malakite. And there are no witches. Most of them are unlucky women who've run afoul of someone more powerful."
He was young, but not fool enough to walk into a discussion of 'unjust persecution' with a Servitor of Fire. "So you suspect demonic involvement?"
"Possibly. There's no noise in the Symphony, which implies human executioners...simply a matter of human viciousness." She reverted, again, to the reasonable being he'd glimpsed on other occasions. "Except for the dead Ofanite -- Zoan was his name, yes? -- and the Traumatized Mercurian. That leads me to believe that there are diabolical influences about...enough to recognize angels, and with the means to kill them on the celestial plane as well as this one. Thirty-six deaths this year so far, Ashur. That's excessive, even for the fanatics. Someone likes burning people."
He began to see why Janus had asked for one of Fire's Malakim. "Belial...?"
A light began behind her eyes. "One of his...very, very likely. We are here to send someone to Hell, Ashur. We just have to find out who."
They began with the Mercurian's house, though that designation was generous. More of a hovel, really, more mud, more filth, more unpleasant odors. Ashur ducked into the door way, noted the leaking thatch and the sagging walls, and thought the place might fall on his head. Aziel swept past him unconcerned, dragging her already soiled wool skirts through more muck.
"How could anyone...?" He stepped in after her, ducking under the splintery doorframe.
"Mercurians like people, dear. Even dirty ones." She crouched by the fireplace, pushed her fingers into the layers of ash in the hearth. "Cold. No fire here for weeks."
Ashur leaned miserably against the doorframe, changed his mind as the wall yielded ever so slightly to his weight. "So? Kellia lived alone, right? Who else would come?"
"Ah, impatient one. You do need teaching." She smiled brightly at him. "Malakim like you make everyone else think we're just dumb angelic muscle. Of course, with Laurence for a sole example, one might see how the misconception begins. Think, Ashur. You're new here, so I'll be patient. I said, No fire here for weeks. When did Kellia appear by her Heart?"
He frowned. "Not long ago -- just after the Ofanite's Heart shattered..." He thought about celestial time, and earthly, and made the conversions. "...maybe a week?"
"So where was she for the weeks before that?" Aziel brought him a scarred iron pot from the ashes. "Look."
Recoil, and grimace. "It's fuzzy."
"Things like this only grow after pots cool and what's left has lots of time to rot. Isn't life wonderful? So tenacious..."
So disgusting. Had demons made the fuzz, or had one of Eli's Servitors Fallen for bringing such a thing into the world? "So? We already knew she hadn't been home for weeks, and she serves Wind, so she can't stay in one place for long -- "
"Would. You. Use. A. Little. Deductive. Reasoning." She tapped the pot against his skull. It hurt. "People don't just run off and leave pots of whatever-this-was in fireplaces."
"She left in a hurry?" He rubbed absently at the new bruise, and tallied another mark of Things To Get Aziel For.
"She did." The pot thudded back into the ashes. Aziel began a restless prowling of the room, fingers wandering over the hanging bundles of herbs, the mattress, the worn table and its unhealthy-looking chairs. "But where would she go?"
"Her Role was a midwife. Maybe someone had a baby."
"Long labor, then, wasn't it?" Her eyes narrowed. "Good way to get her out of the house, though, out in the open, where they could ambush her."
They would be demons, of course. Ashur wanted very badly to meet and kill one. Or three. Or a legion. "Aziel -- why wouldn't she fight back?"
"Maybe she tried. Most of the time a Mercurian can't fight off a wet cat, much less a demon." But she was watching him now, eyes narrow and thoughtful. "Go on."
"What if the burning guy is a human being? Or is using them? She wouldn't be able to kill humans without becoming dissonant, right? Enough of them could grab her. She might even let them kill her."
She seemed pleased. "She might indeed." Then, shattering his theory: "What about the Ofanite? He wouldn't have any problems killing, except for the Symphonic noise."
"Well, there probably is a demon around..."
"Or two, or three. And a mob of people helping, whether willing or not." Aziel began a careful stalk around the room. "Scenario: demon and company arrive, start whipping the fragile mortal mind into witch-frenzies. Deluded mortals, in fear of the witches' 'satanic' powers, begin persecuting whomever seems the least bit odd. Crackle, spat, people start getting killed. Happy demon. With the humans helping, it can mask its presence in the Symphony. I suspect your fellow Servitors, being solitary and mobile creatures, got picked off individually, unable to warn the other." She stopped, spun on one heel, and began her stalk in the other direction. "But it soul-killed the Ofanite...which attracted your Superior's attention...and ours." She stopped again, and sent him a brilliant, mad grin. "Lesson Four: demons inevitably make a mistake. It's that pride thing."
He expected them to storm the courthouse, drag the demon out, and kill him immediately. That was what Malakim did. Aziel had other ideas.
"No. We sneak. We gather information. We lay traps. Then we kill the demon." They had decided to take up residence in the murdered Mercurian's house, and Ashur was trying to sit on the warped bench by the rough and ragged table without getting splinters in embarrassing places. Aziel, naturally, played with the fire.
"I can't stay here for long, you know. Dissonance." Squirm. Stab. Damn the wood, anyway.
"Won't take long." She poked at the flames. Sparks spat and showered her, burned small holes in her skirt. She didn't even flinch. "Besides -- how are you planning to identify the demon? Resonate everyone in town? Even then, no guarantee he'll show." She grinned bitterly. "Believe it or not, my young Virtue, some people are actually more wicked than demons."
"Then how are you planning to catch him?" He found the offending splinter, cast it to the floor and ground his toe into it vindictively.
"Burnt offerings." The firelight chased itself along her hair, turned half her face to bright planes and angles. "You're going to denounce me as a witch."
He jerked in surprise, and drove another splinter into a tender place. "I'm what?"
"Oh, make up something clever -- newly married, we are, and you've found a mark on me that you're sure belongs to the devil..." She reached over and patted his knee. "Ash, dear, you don't have to have a logical or coherent story. Just say 'witch' and 'devil' in the same sentence, and seem God-fearing and righteous and ignorant, and the powers that be will bite."
He was not reassured. He didn't say the obvious -- that arrest and torture awaited anyone arrested of witchcraft. She knew that. She was an angel, and quite tough, and would survive whatever they did to her vessel. What he did not like was where her arrest would leave him. "Am I just supposed to watch, then?"
"And resonate. See who likes what they're doing." She sighed. "Ashur, Ashur -- the demon won't be doing the actual damage -- he can't unless he's very, very stupid, and doesn't care about disturbances -- he'll think I'm human, remember? If he does, of course, he'll notice I'm not what I appear, and we'll probably have a lovely celestial combat then and there." Shrug. "If, as I expect, he's more subtle -- then you will need to watch, and be patient, and try and figure out who's actually behind this entire business. And stay uncaught."
"But what about your oath never to surrender to hell?" Even he'd taken that one. All Malakim did.
"I'm not surrendering. You're handing me over. Joke!" -- as he began to protest -- "Ashur, no one will accuse you of betrayal. Be assured." She turned her attention to the fire, and her eyes unfocussed, reflected the flames. "If I misjudge...I will probably get quite dissonant, for having put myself into their hands. But they will never, ever take me without a fight." Eyes slid back to him, and Gabriel's madness gleamed in them. "I never surrender." Her fingers tightened on his knee. "You can kill any demons you find, of course...but bear in mind they are probably older and stronger than you. Stay out of celestial combat, unless I am there with you. I have promised your Superior that you'll come home experienced and alive. I plan to keep that promise -- I do not lie." One of the oath chains gleamed suddenly, as if lit from within. "As for the evil humans you encounter...bear in mind that murdering mortals is loud and frowned upon by certain powers. Be careful, and use your best judgement." In her eyes he beheld the faintest expression of pity. "You are a Virtue, my young friend. You are not allowed the luxury of moral mistakes."
And so, as per orders, he decried her to the powers that be -- went into the courthouse, and found someone that looked authoritative, and burst into what he hoped were realistic tears. He confessed all sorts of patent nonsense about his 'new bride', things that a Seraph could not have said, but a Malakite could...curdling milk, and black cats, and weird sexual behavior. That last was Aziel's suggestion -- "It will add spice, and they'll be soooo curious" -- and he had blushed as he said it, and been gratified to see an answering reaction in his confessor's face. And as she had predicted, they came to arrest her immediately, and dragged her off screaming and in chains.
He trailed them to the jail, weeping and wringing his hands like a miserable husband whose wife trafficked with Satan. They were none too gentle with her, these officers of the court, striking her often on the face, and wrenching cruelly at her manacles. Resonance revealed one who delighted in cruelty, and had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Ashur decided, noise or no noise, he would kill that one himself, later, for the crime of being. Aziel's screams did not help...he knew she was acting, but even so, the fear sounded real, and made him feel violent urges to protect her.
They wouldn't let him into the jail. "The trial will begin tomorrow," a stern constable told him, blocking the jailhouse door. "At nine of the clock, we will put your wife to trial. You may attend, if you wish."
"And until then?" Tears -- how strange an act, this weeping -- choked his voice. He tried to peer past the man, into the depths of the jail, which smelled like old blood and sweat and the acrid reek of human fear. He heard Aziel somewhere within, shrieking like a damned thing at her captors.
"We will question her." The constable smiled, all malice, and Ashur found another human not worth a note in the Symphony. This one enjoyed giving pain, and seeing women scream. He liked power. Soldier of Hell, Ashur guessed. Or near enough to it. Clearly, the demon, whoever he was, had no shortage of willing help.
Ashur allowed the constable to turn him away with false smiles, and permitted the odious creature to steer him out onto the street again, with one hand on his arm in mock solicitousness. "You have done the right thing. We will save her soul, if we can, sir. Go with God." --Watch her bleed, watch her cry and beg for mercy--
Ashur did not strike him dead on the spot, just nodded, and wandered miserably away. He tried not to notice the sympathetic, knowing stares from passersby, and was glad he could not feel, as an Elohite might, their emotions. He could see the pity, that was bad enough...pity for him, and not Aziel, who deserved it. For a moment, he hated every human he saw.
He ducked a corner and doubled back as soon as the constable went back into the jail. He heard the screams clearly half a block away...high and sharp and female. All he could do not to rush in to the rescue...he reminded himself, This is for a higher good, this is for a higher good until the words ran together into meaningless thought.
He crept along behind the jail, avoiding human eyes; not hard, as the rain picked up in violence, and the skies themselves shouted in outrage. People ducked their heads and ran for cover, and no one thought to look in the filthy alley behind the jail, where no one wanted to be anyway.
The very wet angelic vessel huddled there, pressed against the aging worn bricks, listening at the window whence the screams came; the angel inside said wet vessel was getting madder by the moment. Said angel forgot his former disdain for the dirt and muck, and hunkered down into the smallest possible shape, and waited with unhuman patience as the wet afternoon wore on and the sky went dark. The screams ripping through the window slit above him changed in timbre, quieted at times, and he could hear the low murmur of voices. Inevitably, the cries would start again soon after. In more cynical moments, Ashur wondered if she enjoyed the acting, or if the pain was real to her, or how she allowed them to hurt her at all. And he realized, somewhere in the long hours of the afternoon, that she was right -- what humans justified doing to other humans could make a Habbalite jealous...that humans could actually be worse than demons. They built places to torture prisoners...built implements whose sole purpose was to cause pain. He heard them inside, the male voices, telling her what would be done, and wouldn't she just confess and spare herself that suffering? I would say anything, anything at all, to spare you this, Aziel. I am a coward, because I cannot bear to hear your suffering while I go free. Angry as you made me, this is no revenge I would wish on you. Self-sacrifice is the way of angels, he knew that, but next time...next time, he swore it would be himself that suffered, and no one in his company.
It was Fire's job to smite the cruel. Now Ashur understood why that was necessary. That long afternoon he crafted an oath in his mind: to destroy the places where cruelty was practiced. This jail, he decided, would feel the power of Wind before he left it. He would obliterate the damned stake, too.
Silence, finally -- no voices, no screams, nothing. The remains of daylight failed.
And then, when there was no light at all, Ashur leapt up and grabbed the edges of the window slit, and hauled himself to just eye level up to have a good look at things.
Aziel had been half-stripped and manacled to the wall. The place reeked of blood and gore; her vessel had bled, and copiously. Skin hung from her back like ribbons; her wrists were raw from the strain of holding her body weight. She looked unconscious, limp in the chains.
He did not call out to her; a guard stood at the door, a red-faced man in the uniform of the judge's personal soldiers. The guard's eyes fixed only on Aziel, as though waiting for the first sign of movement from her. Now and again he would twitch, and change position, but his attention never wavered.
And finally, she did move, got her legs under her and straightened them, and hissed as the pressure eased on her shoulders. Her head came up, eyes furious under disheveled hair, and Ashur saw the chain round her neck, hanging between her breasts: gold, and heavy, with a cross dangling from it.
The guard started for her, grinning now. "Awake, pretty?" Ashur recognized the voice: the questioner from this afternoon.
She said a phrase Ashur thought anatomically impossible. The guard only grinned wider. "Temper, pretty, temper. Are you feeling of a mind to answer the questions we asked you? Any accomplices?"
Ashur expected an acidic retort. Aziel took a long breath instead, and another; the scabs on her back split began to bleed again. But she said nothing at all.
The guard was almost to her, now. His hands reached -- foul, nail-bitten things, too -- and stopped, of a sudden, just inches from her skin. Her body jerked, and a huge bruise began on her belly, black and spreading. Ashur jerked back, almost lost his grip on the window. The guard didn't touch her. Oh God, that's a demon...how did they know she was an angel?
Now she spoke, another obscenity, and spat at her tormentor. "You better hope you kill me permanently."
He dodged the liquid missile. "Bet you wish you could get your hands free, pretty. Or change forms. Or do just about anything at all, eh? Do you like being human?"
"Take this chain off, Fallen, and see just how human I am." The heavy gold gleamed, brightened; Ashur smelled flesh burning...hers. No cry, this time, just bitter silence.
The guard -- the Calabite, he had to be -- shook his head. "You keep trying that. You keep getting burned. You like burning, though, huh?"
Aziel turned her head away from the Calabite's mockery. Her eyes tracked along the wall to the window...and saw him. She did not seem surprised in the least. A nod then, faint, acknowledging him: This performance is for you, Ashur. Pay attention.
Aziel straightened, turned back to the demon. "Vapula has outdone himself this time. I mean, really -- this chain is exquisite. Suppressing all celestial powers...does it work on you Fallen, too?" Her chin came up, defiant. "But of course it does...I'm sure he tested it before he gave it to the pretender-to-Fire."
This time it was the Calabite's hand that connected with her face, fist to bones. Something crunched. "Watch what you call my Prince, pretty."
"Be careful how hard you hit me, traitor to Heaven. I have a trial tomorrow; if I'm too damaged I can't testify in my own defense. Unless you're planning on carrying me back to Hell tonight?" She sounded lightly unconcerned, but Ashur knew her better...desperation shaded her tones. Malakim did not go to Hell in chains, that was dishonor, and if they did... Ashur shied away from the thought, and dug his fingers into the bricks.
"Hardly. You'll burn. For a long, long time." The demon moved back, clearly wanting to hit her again, and not daring to. Someone, Ashur thought, much more powerful was controlling things. Someone the Calabite fears.
"I like fire." Again, blithe unconcern masking the beginning of fear. "Is this what you did to the Mercurian of Wind?"
The Calabite stiffened, and said, very, very softly, "What do you know about her?" For a moment his face seemed terribly lost.
Ah, weakness. Aziel pounced. "Why do you care, Zoan?" The demon flinched, shock at hearing his former name from the Malakite's lips.
Traitor! Ashur just kept himself from shouting it aloud. Your Heart shattered because you Fell. You didn't die at all.... Had Janus known?
The lost expression vanished under a scowl. "I don't. I'm looking forward to watching you die. And after you're crisp and everyone goes home, we'll take you right on home to my Lord Prince, and he can play with you."
"You didn't do that with Kellia. She's home in Trauma."
Again, the shuttered expression, a wince at her name, and he muttered, "I took the chain off too soon, and her body died and she got away. I won't make that mistake with you."
"If I disappear, there will be others." Not in time to save her, she knew that.
Smug now, the hesitation vanished: "Then we'll leave. We'll have you...and any friends that show up tomorrow. Who's that 'husband,' eh, pretty?"
"Too smart for you, Destroyer. Better look out..." She grinned at the Calabite, all teeth.
He glowered at her, and didn't move to strike. "I could kill you right now. I want to."
"Pity you take orders, then, isn't it?" She tossed her head, managed another glance on the window. Her hair followed, auburn curtain, and swung between the demon and her face. Go, she mouthed at Ashur.
It was an order. She was, technically, his superior right now. Ashur dropped, furious, to the dirt. Not enough time, in what was left of the night, to get to the Tether and back again with help, and by tomorrow Aziel would be burned and dragged off to Hell. He didn't dare just ascend to the Celestial plane and risk the Symphonic jangle that would accompany him. Perhaps he could take Zoan himself, but the other, the one the Calabite feared...that was the target, the mind behind the witch hunts. Aziel would flay him herself if he let that one get away by acting too soon.
Frustrated now, Ashur took back into the streets, and stalked relentlessly, and planned.
Getting into the courthouse in the morning proved difficult. People flocked, packed the small damp room. He did not have to be an Elohite to see their eagerness for blood. He stayed at the back, and stayed cloaked, too -- patrols scoured the streets all night, looking for him. They had practically housed a garrison at the hovel, waiting for him to return.
Zoan was one of two guards who dragged Aziel into chambers, sat her roughly in the defendant's chair. Her face was swollen, the line of her cheekbones marred by bruising, but her eyes were bright and angry and burned. Ashur noticed that she did not sit back in the chair, held herself carefully rigid, to spare her vessel's back further torment. The Calabite knew it, and pushed her, hard. She hissed, pain and anger, and no repentance at all. The crowd began murmuring about 'damned' and 'witch' and 'Satan', and their bloodlust peaked.
The golden chain glinted, barely visible, beneath the collar of her shirt.
Ashur kept his hood well up, hugged the back wall of the courtroom, and waited, practicing patience. Violence now will accomplish nothing, he reminded himself. She told you to think, and you will. Be a smart Malakite.
The judge entered the courthouse, black-robed and stern, and a hush fell over the murmuring masses. Aziel's head snapped around, stared at him...and the expression on her face would have melted glass. The judge eyed her, and the faintest of smiles crossed his face. Recognition, very obviously, on both sides.
Ashur sighed. Vendettas. Old grudges. Fire Above and Fire Below had some of the nastiest. He suspected a demon, resonated just to check, was shocked by the sticky darkness of it. A Balseraph. That, then, would be the ringleader. His oath chains tightened on his very being: kill it now.
Soon, he promised himself. Both of them. The Bal stepped close to the accused, the Calabite ever watchful and poised to strike her. He whispered something, and Ashur watched Aziel's eyes get wide, shocked, anger and fear warring for dominance. Color ran from her face. The Bal stepped back, then, and in a voice clearly heard by everyone: "My child, your pride has undone you. If you will confess, we will speed your soul on to God..."
She shook her head, all defiance draining from her. And said nothing at all. Ashur felt chilled, watching that, and on its heels came anger, white and hot. Never listen to a Balseraph's lies, the Elohite Sisera had told him, long ago. They can make you believe anything, and so erode your faith in yourself. Though, she had added, gentle irony on her face, there is little you can do, sometimes, for they are the most insidious of the Bands, having Fallen so far.
The judge went to his bench, called for the trial to begin; Ashur slipped out the back door. The Balseraph would have those people begging to kill her soon enough, have them believing completely whatever lies he told, and they'd drag her to execution, and he'd be there...to do a little killing of his own.
The mob began filling the square before noon. Inevitable, their arrival: when Ashur arrived just after the trial began, he'd found workmen erecting a wooden platform from which the constables and judge could pronounce sentence, and have a pleasantly unobstructed view of the execution. Vendors came, too, and set up booths selling pastries and badly watered ale. Wood made its way on willing backs to a pile around the stake. Somewhere in the increasing chaos, Ashur took his position unnoticed.
The sky hung, leaden, overhead, and Ashur wished for rain enough to choke any fires. Still, barring that...he held the pilfered crossbow in his sweating palms, and settled down to wait.
The cheers rose, and the catcalls, and grimly triumphant constables escorted their victim into the square. Aziel stumbled between them, silent. That worried Ashur; no screams, no cries, no defiance. What did the Bal say to you? Probably a lie that was enough truth she could believe: that she would suffer for a time here in the flames, and then they would take her tattered self to Belial in Hell. That he was dead, maybe, or captured -- that would make sense, to tear her hope away. Dammit, Aziel. You can't give up. She passed feet from him, did not look up. Oh Janus, help me, but she has... He wished he had the spare Essence to attempt a summoning. At this point, even mad Gabriel would be welcome, if only to loan her Fire to Aziel...
The constables -- and by now Ashur was sure they both served Hell willingly -- pulled her against the stake, and clipped the manacles onto the ring above her head. It must have hurt her torn back, but she did not react. Her eyes wandered over the crowd, haunted. She's looking for me. Oh, damn. She did not find what she sought, and she sagged miserably in the chains, and let her wrists bear the weight of her. Ashur wanted to cry out to her, and did not dare. Patience...you are not alone, Aziel. Whatever the Balseraph said...he lied.
As if a Bal could do anything else.
They lit the fire.
Ashur kept this eyes on the Balseraph as the fire took, and watched the very demonic grins spring up on both his and Zoan's faces. The constables looked merely pleased with themselves, and eager as hounds look when they anticipate reward from the master's hand. The Bal leaned over, murmured something to Zoan, who shrugged; the Bal frowned briefly, then returned his attention to the bonfire.
And Ashur stood up, and pointed the crossbow, and fired a bolt straight into the demon's heart.
The Liar tumbled over in a fluttering mass of black fabric, hands and eyes fixed on the protruding bolt. Zoan, too, stared; then the Calabite's eyes back-trailed the missile's trajectory, and found Ashur. The Malakite of Wind calmly fitted another bolt into the crossbow, and leveled, and fired again.
This one Zoan batted aside, shattering wood and metal into tiny lethal fragments that sent nearby spectators yelping away, clawing at tiny wounds. The Calabite made a gesture, the only warning Ashur had -- and he felt a crushing, extraordinary pain explode somewhere in his chest.
Sisera had warned him about Calabim, too, now that he thought on it. Because the spectators were by and large getting the idea that something unusual was afoot, and because he did not want to absorb another taste of Zoan's resonance, Ashur simply abandoned the material plane.
The crossbow clattered wetly to the mud where he'd been an instant before, and the Symphony rippled, announcing his passage. Aziel, whose eyes had been closed, heard it. Her head came up, eyes showing interest again in her surroundings: the fallen Balseraph was just dragging himself upright, bloody crossbow bolt in hand, ignoring the injury that would have killed a mortal man. His eyes raked the square once and again, when he could not find his attacker. And then they tracked back to her, there on the burning wood, and his lies unraveled around him. The Symphony grated, dissonant.
Aziel smiled, just briefly, and the Bal's eyes blazed. The fire flared up in response, black smoke and bright flames rising up to obscure the figure chained to the stake.
Only those watchers closest to the fire could have seen, however distorted by heat, that for a moment there were two forms in the fire. The second unhooked the chain from the stake, and reached around the neck of the first, and drew something off -- strangely calm and deliberate movements for a being caught in fire. In the next moment, there was only one shape...and the fire died abruptly, cooled to embers.
Aziel was still smiling. The Balseraph was not. Zoan began a motion toward her, and the Symphony sang again: Ashur, vessel slightly charred about the edges, appeared between the Calabite and Aziel. They faced each other, angels and demons, assessing strengths and weaknesses.
"Delan," Aziel murmured. "I believed you, Liar, to my eternal shame."
"What, not infallible?" The Balseraph turned the bolt in his hand, made a weapon of it. "Shame indeed, Malakite."
She had drawn even with Ashur by now. He knew because he felt the raw energy of her, the insanity that let her ignore pain and fatigue and memory itself. Only the moment for Aziel, whatever had gone before. Ashur felt all of his bruises, and the sting of burns from the fire, and an overwhelming desire to destroy the demons.
"Pathetic, really," the Balseraph observed. "Demons chained you, Aziel. Beat you. And without your little friend here" -- Ashur growled, and Delan ignored him -- "you would be in Hell by now...maybe Soldekai shouldn't let you work alone, eh?"
The Malakite regarded him with mad eyes. "Angels are never alone, broken Seraph. I forgot that once; I won't again. -- Ashur...the Bal is mine."
Green fire wreathed her hands of a sudden, and the Balseraph quailed. And she struck, with Ashur moving beside her, and the Destoyer uncoiling like a spring at them both.
The combat was brief and bloody. The fight the demons kept on the corporeal plane, refusing the dangers of celestial combat. Aziel cared little, really; the fire of Gabriels Virtues are generally more than a match for demon vessels, and she fought with single-minded madness. Songs ripped the Symphony, spattering acid and shattering walls, mending flesh and rending it moments later. Aziel and Delan locked onto each other like fighting dogs, and the smell of charred flesh permeated everything.
Humans watched, then fled, and screamed as they ran.
The Calabite and Ashur, too, were engaged; but Ashur fared not so well as Aziel. Pain was really quite new to him, and weakness, and he lacked a bottomless well of Essence with which to power his healing Song. The Destroyer drove him back: first down the platform steps, then to the dirt of the square, then into the smoldering mess of wood and ash, until the Malakite pushed up against the blackened stake itself. And all the while, though he gave a fair accounting of himself, Ashur took more wounds than he gave, and left a trail of precious lifeblood where he walked. The discovery of the stake behind him came as a dark relief. He hauled himself up against it, took the weight off his shattered knee, and braced himself to stay there. Malakim never surrendered to Hell.
Zoan closed on him, his face a laughing mass of gore. Ashur used the last Essence he had, and Sang, and shaped the Symphony around him into solid plates of protection. The Calabite would make short work of them, he knew. Zoan made short work of all his defenses.
"Afraid, Malakite? This will hurt."
What hadn't? "No." A lie, that; the death was temporary, true, but the experience of dying was one Ashur did not desire. Especially at the hands of a traitor.
Zoan giggled, a demented sound. "I'll teach you fear, then, little one. You should have stayed in the Groves." He began to batter the shield, his resonance striking it like cannon. Ashur read an ugly, lingering death for himself in the Destroyer's eyes, and tried to compose himself to die well. His biggest regret was going to be leaving the jailhouse intact, he thought. And leaving Aziel to deal with two demons, if the Bal proved slow to die. And simply failing in his first earthside assignment by dying with things left unfinished. I did need training, he though miserably. And a chaperone. Sisera's going to be mad when I pop back to the Groves, because Aziel promised I'd be okay, and I am most definitely not that....
Past Zoan's shoulder and the weird shimmer of assaulted shields, Ashur saw Aziel go down on top of Delan in a tangle of black robes and fire. The Bal's fate was imminent, and Ashur found some satisfaction in that. The Calabite smashed into the shields again, relentless. There is no Trauma for Malakim, he told himself firmly. Death will hurt, that's all.
And the shields cracked, and shattered. Zoan hesitated not at all, lunged in and struck. Bones shattered then, and Ashur screamed. It did hurt, and more than he had imagined or prepared for; ribs caved, tore through organs and muscle, and one lung began to fill with blood. He wilted down the stake, fluid welling into his mouth from passages meant for air. When Zoan struck again, he could not even manage a scream, only choked on the blood, and collapsed utterly.
Defeat, he decided, tasted like blood, and sounded like a Calabite's laughter.
And looked like ashes. Everything. Ashes.
She heard him scream, even through Delan's hysterics. He sounded surprised -- as if he had not meant to cry out at all. That was enough; she paused in the midst of toasting the unfortunate, traitorous Balseraph, and turned to see the cause.
The blood made a bright, obscene splash against his face; that she saw. And Zoan, who threw a vindictive kick at him -- she saw that, too. Aziel was no stranger to corporeal death, and survived it a thousand thousand times...but she had promised that Ashur should not feel it, this time. Delan writhed, taking advantage of her distraction, and he dissolved suddenly. The Symphony shrieked.
A demon was escaping. She could pursue it, kill it...or let Ashur die. Two oath chains tightened to searing, choking bands. Zoan laughed, triumphant; Ashur twitched at his feet.
No choice at all, really.
One chain released suddenly, and the Symphony jangled harshly. And Aziel left the now-empty platform, and hurled herself at the Calabite so lately Fallen.
Warned by some sense of doom, he turned barely in time to meet her; and fled immediately, drawing Essence from the last of his reserves. She hesitated, Ashur choking at her feet, and a second note of dissonance joined the first. The violated oath hung limply at her neck, and burned.
She swore, having no oaths against that, and Sang health back into the broken Malakite at her feet. The blood slowed, stopped, and his breathing eased. Under her hands his ribcage reacquired a natural shape, curved out instead of in. Aziel's anger fled altogether; dissonance was not, really, too high a price for life, and surcease from pain. Gently she touched Ashur's face, now relaxed and wearing new lines. Had been a time when she was new to crippling injury, too...she had forgotten the fear one could feel at dying. She settled into the sticky mess of ashes and blood, and waited patiently for him to wake up and realize he had not died.
He did, after not too many moments. His eyes blinked, and awareness flooded into them like rivers. "Aziel." He sat up too suddenly, and had to wait a moment to find breath again.
"Songs cannot fix everything," she told him gently. "Mind how rapidly you move."
His eyes were wild, raking around the now-deserted square. "Where are they?" One hand found hers and squeezed. "Where are they?"
"Gone." The dissonance hurt more, now, tugging at her being with sharp fingers. She touched him with hands unaccustomed to kindness. "They went Celestial. Probably in Sheol by now."
He stared at her with wounded, guilty eyes. He knew, of course. How not? -- only a deaf angel could not hear the uneasy notes that surrounded her. Something like guilt welled up, and he turned his attention to the ground. "I'm sorry --"
"Ashur, Ashur. It's our own fault, we Malakim, if we swear oaths that conflict. Then we have to choose which to keep and which to break. No matter the perceived rightness of our choice, we always pay." She caught his chin, forced him to look at her. "It's very good reason to swear a minimum number," she added acerbically, "Whatever the others tell you."
That got her a smile. Good. He was really too kind to be a Malakite, this one. Too prone to feel things. She stood abruptly, hauled him up after her. "We should leave -- the mob will not be long driven away, and best we're not here when it gathers up the courage to come."
"Wait." Ashur bent over and brushed through the ashes, and nearly fell in the process. "We should bring this." The golden chain hung from his fingers.
"You carry it." Aziel shivered. "Horrid thing. -- Now what?" It would be a long enough walk, at this point, since neither of them had the Essence to spare. She hated to dawdle.
"Help me destroy it." He clung with pitiful fury to the stake.
"Oaths, Aziel. Please."
Well, someone should keep his oaths. "Of course..." Fire leapt up again, green and righteous, and the stake burned, and added to the pile of ashes all around them.
Shortly thereafter, the jail burned to the ground, victim of a mysterious explosion. People muttered about God's vengeance.
They were not far wrong.
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